AFRICAN -AMERICAN ARTISTS OF LOS ANGELES
Interviewed by Karen Anne Mason
Completed under the auspices
Oral History Program
University of California
Copyright © 2000
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RESTRICTIONS ON THIS INTERVIEW
Portions of this interview are restricted until January 1,
2025, without interviewee's written permission.
LITERARY RIGHTS AND QUOTATION
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This interview was made possible in part by a grant
from the UCLA Institute of American Cultures in
conjunction with the UCLA Center for African American
Biographical Summary vi
Interview History viii
TAPE NUMBER: I, Side One (September 5, 1992) 1
Family background- -The Carter G. Woodson
collection in the Atlanta library--Woodson' s
connection to the Riddle family — Father's
employment as an architect and specifications
writer — The decline of a sense of community among
African Americans--Riddle' s religious background--
His murals for a Black Christian Nationalist
church in Atlanta- -Racial discrimination in Los
TAPE NUMBER: I, Side Two (September 5, 1992) 30
Induction into the United States Air Force- -
Discrimination in the military--Reasons African
Americans seek employment in the military and the
postal service--Riddle' s tour of duty in Japan- -
His perception of the Japanese people--His early
interest in art--Studies earth science at Los
Angeles Community College--Receives a B.A. from
California State University, Los Angeles, in
education and art- -Reasons Riddle works in
several media--His interest in found objects--
Sketching the police station at Pico and Rimpau.
TAPE NUMBER: II, Side One (September 5, 1992) 60
Meets Noah Purifoy and Ruth G. Waddy--Walking
railroad tracks to find discarded objects for
sculptures--David Smith's influence on Riddle's
work- -Acquiring the skill of finding useful
material for his artwork--Genesis and evolution
of his Employees Only assemblage- -His Malcolm X
and Nixon: The Twentieth Anniversary, Busted
pieces--Reasons Riddle prefers sculpture to
painting--His M.A. thesis on spirit and
technology- -Constructing the assemblage Bird and
TAPE NUMBER: II, Side Two (September 5, 1992) 90
More on the assemblage Bird and Diz--Riddle' s
wife Carmen's family--African American artists in
Los Angeles- -Carmen Riddle's mother--Dan
Concholar and David Hammons--The nature of black
art--Ernest Herbert and BAAism--Alonzo Davis and
the Brockman Gallery- -Suzanne Jackson and Gallery
32--The founding of Art-West Associated--Saturday
art critiques at the Brockman Gallery--Patronage
of African American art in Los Angeles — The
racism of United States foreign and domestic
TAPE NUMBER: III, Side One (September 5, 1992) 130
The incidence of drug and alcohol use among
artists and musicians--Dif ferences between
artists in Atlanta and those on the West Coast--
Riddle ' s brief sojourn in Trinidad--Elite control
of and profiteering from the Olympic Games- -
African American artists' use of color--Riddle' s
painting The Olympic Stand--His Clubs Is Trumps--
Images and techniques he uses in his art.
TAPE NUMBER: III, Side Two (September 5, 1992) 161
Riddle's desire to avoid repeating himself
artistically — The commitment and dedication
required to be an artist--Riddle ' s definition of
TAPE NUMBER: IV, Side One (June 26, 1993) 165
Riddle's collaboration with John W. Outterbridge--
More on his murals for a Black Christian
Nationalist church in Atlanta--More on his
collaboration with Outterbridge- -Anthony Hill--
Competition and cooperation among Riddle ' s artist
friends--How the Watts riots united African
American artists in Los Angeles--Dif ferences
between black and white critics ' approach to
African American art--The public's preference for
soothing, nonconf rontational art--United States
involvement in the drug trade in Central America--
The human costs of drug use in African American
communities--Crime as a source of profit in
TAPE hajMBER: IV, Side Two (June 26, 1993) 198
The problem of black-on-black violence--Raising
African American consciousness through art--
Impact of the middle passage on Riddle's art--His
goals in teaching children--The injustice of
United States immigration policies--The
importance of persevering in art regardless of
the market--The need for African Americans to
support African American businesses--White
liberals' attitude toward blacks--The impact of
TAPE NUMBER: V, Side One (June 26, 1993) 227
More on the impact of racism worldwide--Riddle' s
appreciation of jazz--The African American art
tradition — Riddle's idea for an artwork
portraying Huey P. Newton- -America ' s recent
decline and its causes--Riddle' s proposed artwork
on the drug trade--Ronald W. Reagan--Riddle' s
reasons for becoming an artist--Producing art
while holding full-time employment.
Bom: March 18, 1933, Los Angeles.
Education: A. A., earth science, Los Angeles City
College; B.A., education and art, California State
University, Los Angeles; M.A., California State
University, Los Angeles.
Military Service: United States Air Force, 1953-57.
Spouse: Carmen Garrott Riddle, married April 24, 1953,
ART COMMISSIONS AND ACTIVITIES:
Sculpture commission. Expelled Because of Color.
Georgia State Capitol grounds, 1976.
Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority
commission. Tenth Street Midtown Station, four walls
Georgia Council for the Arts commission, ten color
lithographs created for the Governor's Art Award
Artwork used on the set of the television series In the
Heat of the Night, (MGM-UA), 1988.
Painting commission, Hartsfield Airport, Georgia,
Olympics hundredth anniversary, 1996.
Sculpture commission, Seagram's Company, Spirits at the
Consultant, California African American Museum.
Two Emmy Awards, for Renaissance in Black: Two Artists'
Governor's Award, Visual Artist, State of Georgia,
Fulton County, Georgia, Visual Artist of the Year
Karen Anne Mason, B.A., English, Sinunons College; M.A.,
Art History, UCLA.
TIME AND SETTING OF INTERVIEW:
Place: Riddle's home, Atlanta, Georgia.
Dates, length of sessions: September 5, 1992 (219
minutes); June 26, 1993 (130).
Total number of recorded hours: 5.8 hours.
Persons present during interview: Riddle, Mason,
Riddle's wife. Carmen Riddle, intermittently.
CONDUCT OF INTERVIEW:
This interview is one in a series on African American
art and artists in Los Angeles. This oral history
project gathers and preserves interviews with African
American artists who have created significant works and
others in the Los Angeles metropolitan area who have
worked to expand exhibition opportunities and public
support for African American visual culture.
The interview is organized chronologically, beginning
with Riddle's childhood in Los Angeles, California and
continuing through his activities as an artist in the
Los Angeles area. Major topics discussed include
Riddle's individual works of art, African American
artists in Los Angeles, the effects of racism, and
Riddle's philosophy of art.
Steven J. Novak, editor, edited the interview. He
checked the verbatim transcript of the interview
against the original tape recordings, edited for
punctuation, paragraphing, and spelling, and verified
proper names. Words and phrases inserted by the editor
have been bracketed.
Riddle did not review the transcript but provided
selected names when queried. As a consequence, family
names and some acquaintances remain unverified.
William Van Benschoten, editor, prepared the table of
contents, biographical summary, and interview history.
Ji Young Kwon, editorial assistant, compiled the index,
The original tape recordings of the interview are in
the university archives and are available under the
regulations governing the use of permanent noncurrent
records of the university. Records relating to the
interview are located in the office of the UCLA Oral
TAPE NUMBER: I, SIDE ONE
SEPTEMBER 5, 1992
So the first question we always ask is, when and
where were you born?
RIDDLE: In Los Angeles, California, March 18, 1933.
MASON: And who are your parents?
RIDDLE: John Thomas Riddle, Sr., and Helen Louise
MASON: Okay. Do you have any siblings?
RIDDLE: Yeah. I have an older sister, Joanne Tyler
Jefferson, Judy Keeling, and a brother, Paul Anthony
MASON: Okay. Do you know much about your grandparents
and your family background?
MASON: Could you talk a bit about that?
RIDDLE: Well, let's see. On my mother's side, they lived
in Bakersfield, California. That's my earliest
recollection. Although my mother was born in Indiana, in
Bloomington, we used to spend every summer in Bakersfield.
That's a town about 115 miles north of Los Angeles, up
Highway 99--used to be 99 in those days. It was always a
pleasurable trip, and we would stay for the whole summer.
When I was young, I didn't realize my mother and father
were actually getting a summer's vacation from us; we
thought we were getting away from them. But I think, now
that I have kids, they got the better deal. [laughter]
We always went up there usually for Thanksgiving.
And my grandmother, Emma, she could cook. I mean, like
everybody says grandmothers could cook. But she actually
catered for restaurants and hotels right out of her
kitchen. And it was always interesting. I don't want to
associate it with food and swimming and just eating grapes
and having a good time, but--
I had an Uncle George who was divorced and he had
been in World War II and he had turned into an alcoholic.
But he was like the classic "black wino" philosopher. I
mean, he would sit and drink wine in the backyard and talk
until he fell asleep. I slept out under the grape arbor
with him in the summer, and I'd always listen to him. He
had a lot of wisdom, but he had no respect. And he had a
lot of frustration and--
MASON: You mean no respect for himself or other people?
RIDDLE: Well, I mean, the fact that he was an alcoholic,
he probably didn't have the greatest respect for himself,
because that's a form of suicide. But he didn't get
respect from the other people in his family because they
were embarrassed by the fact that there was an alcoholic
in the family. He was kind of like a laughingstock. But
because I was always out there with him at night, and he
would tell me different things-- I mean, he had a lot of
wisdom. But it's kind of like the street preachers. You
hear them out there, and everybody's walking along about
their own business. Nobody really pays much attention to
what they're saying. And yet some of them could be
geniuses if we stopped and listened.
MASON: It seems like every black family has one. And
it's usually the case where they were really ambitious
but, because of their race or because of something like
that, their dreams were kind of thwarted and so they end
up being really self -destructive.
RIDDLE: Yeah, that's true. I remember my grandfather
[inaudible] Drisdom-- I don't know how many times my
grandmother had been married, because my mother was a
Wheeler and so was-- My Uncle George was a Wheeler. But
my Aunt Suzy, who lives in Los Angeles--she ' s Suzy Johnson
now--she was a Pinkney, and her brother Oliver, who is
deceased, he was a Pinkney. And Mr. Drisdom, who was my
grandfather that I remember-- So at least there's three
names there. So she must have been married at least three
MASON : Yeah .
RIDDLE: But he worked at the railroad. And he had like a
drawer ful of those pocket watches where the lids pop open.
He had a whole drawer ful, and I always used to just be
amazed to look in that drawer and see twenty or thirty of
those really nice watches. I don't know if they all
worked or not, but that's one of my memories. Just like I
had a memory of how she had this chicken coop, my
grandmother, and she raised chicks, and she cut off the
chickens' heads when it was time to eat them and wrung
their necks, and they would flop around in the yard. And
we'd all look like, "Wow!" Chickens without heads trying
to get that last flight. You know. So I remember those
kinds of things. It was always hot, dry.
Then when I got older, I used to go up there and
spend the summer. But she used to say, "Well, you're too
old to sit around. You have to go to work." And we'd go
work in the fields. The worst job imaginable. And I used
to wonder then how did black people work in the fields for
nothing, because I was making like five dollars a week and
that was nothing. It was hot and long hours and picking
onions and being-- Picking onions in 110 degrees and
crying because you had to cut the tops off of them. And
having so much onion juice and dirt on your hands, you
couldn't wipe your eyes. You'd just be out there, "Boo
hoo." And then people would take those onions home at
night. I didn't want to see an onion I I think the last
time I spent the summer there, I was eighteen going on--
maybe, nineteen. And I came back to L.A. and went to
school that fall and met Carmen Garrott, who I married and
am still married to. We've been married thirty-nine
years, now. But that's another part of the story.
RIDDLE: Now, on my father's side, they had twelve kids.
He's right in the middle. He was about number six. But I
think the most interesting thing is, his father was a
preacher, tall, about six foot five. I remember he had
white hair and he stood as straight as a stick and he was
real thin. And his name was C. Morton Riddle. And his
wife--what's her name? I can't think of my grandmother's
first name; she was just Grandmother Riddle. I know her
name but I can't think of it. They had a little bit of
everything in their family. They had a communist, I mean,
which is really weird. One of my father's brothers was a
communist; one was a very successful numbers racketeer and
bookmaker. My father-- That was Edgar [Riddle] . Edgar
and my father looked just alike. I mean, they looked like
Indians. They had very straight hair and high cheekbones
and a dark complexion like they were Native American
Indians, not people from India. I always remember Edgar
was always clean, and he always had on bad suits and tough
shoes. But he was a very successful bookmaker and numbers
person in Pasadena.
My father grew up with the Robinson family. They
were like Jackie's older brothers and all of that. They
all knew each other. And one of my father's brothers,
Ralph [Riddle] , was the first black policeman in Pasadena.
Let's see: Dwight [Riddle] was the communist. Two of
them, two of the daughters, never left home. They stayed
with their mother until she died. I think one of them is
still alive. Geraldine [Riddle] is still alive, and I
think Flo [Riddle] just passed recently. I might be even
getting their names mixed up, but they lived in Pasadena
on Walnut Street. And we'd go over there a lot, too,
because it was a lot closer. It was on the original
freeway in L.A. , the Arroyo Seco. That was the freeway
into Pasadena. That was the original. That was the only
freeway in L.A. at one time when I was a kid. We used to
go out there quite a bit. My grandfathers died in their
sixties. My father's mother lived to be ninety-three, and
ray mother's mother lived to be about eighty-four. So they
lived a long time. But I think the most interesting thing
was that C. Morton Riddle, my grandfather, was directly
related by blood to Carter G. Woodson. And one of the
things that was really funny for me was-- I can't think
quite now of the name of Carter G. Woodson's book, his
quarterly publication. It might have been the Negro
Monthly Digest or something like that. The Negro
Quarterly Digest [Journal of Negro History 1 .
MASON: Yeah, I know what you're talking about.
RIDDLE: It's in the library downtown. There's a
gentleman who died and bequeathed this huge collection.
He tried to collect every black subject book and every
book by a black author and every slave narrative out. So
it's called the Williams Collection. It's on the fifth
floor of the downtown library.
MASON: So he was going to be the southern Arthur
RIDDLE: Yeah. In fact, they're rebuilding. We passed
the building on my way bringing you here which is going to
be the Fulton County research library. That's going to
house his collection. They're going to move it out of
there because too many people steal the books out of
reference, which is a disservice to everybody who is
interested to hoard-- But, then, the library is not good,
because I read-- Now, this is a divergence right here.
It's about the library and Carter G. Woodson. But I read
Walter White's The Rope and the Faggot, which was the
history of lynchings in the United States. At one time he
was the head of the NAACP [National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People], Walter White. He's a
white-looking man, also.
MASON: Yeah, blond, blue-eyed.
RIDDLE: Yeah. And so he was able to cross back and forth
across the color line and get information, like the Spook
Who Sat by the Door [Sam Greenlee] . I checked the book
out because I wanted to read it, and it was a signed copy
in circulation by Walter White. So I got to read it. I
took it back to the library, and they said, "How did that
ever get out?" Here it was an autographed copy by the
author, you know? The library is not supposed to be
circulating those. But anyway, they aren't that tight
with control. So it might be better for the Williams
Collection to be housed in a place that has better
I found out that on my father's side I was able to
trace their history, that they came from Virginia, from
West Virginia. From Virginia, first. It was around the
time of Alex Haley and Roots, and everybody was looking
for their genealogy. And I started going, looking up-- I
could always look up my family, because all I had to do
was look up Carter G. Woodson's name in Carter G.
Woodson's books. I mean, I'd look up C. Morton Riddle,
and maybe once or twice a year he'd write an article about
his family. And then by finding my grandfather, I could
get these other names, and I could go back through other
volumes and look them up in the table of contents. When I
had time, I could always go in there and read something
about my family tree on that side.
The most interesting thing was that his mother was
one of my father's great, or great-great, aunts on that
side of the family. So there was this direct
relationship between my father and Carter G. Woodson and
my grandfather. So what I found out was-- Like, I
started reading this, getting back further and further.
And I read how in one episode where a friend of my
grandfather smuggled them across the Saint Charles River
and into West Virginia-- And he founded a church there
because he was a minister. Then he left there and he
went to Ohio, where my father was born, in Columbus. And
then he got a pass to ship out in Los Angeles, which was
My father went to-- He was a very good athlete. He
told me this when he was dying. I think it was in '81
when he passed. He had cancer or the thought of cancer--
I never knew whether he really had it or he believed he
had it, because, you know-- But anyway, I went out to see
him about three weeks before he passed rather than go to
a funeral-- So I would sit out there every day, and he
would tell me stuff. He told me that because of his
Indian looks they had offered him a job to play baseball
with the Portland Beavers. That was the Pacific Coast
League baseball team at the time. But he had to say he
was Indian and he told them he didn't want to do that.
Instead, he went to the Negro baseball league, and he
played with the Negro baseball league. He went to Japan
two times. It was a touring black baseball team. He
used to have pictures in his drawer of him and these
players and stuff. My mother used to say he could really
play baseball, but he also was-- Between, I guess, 1924,
'25, somewhere in there, and '27, he was on USC
[University of Southern California] ' s football team. He
was the fullback on their football team.
MASON: He went on an athletic scholarship?
RIDDLE: No. I don't know, because he graduated with a
degree in architecture. So I don't know if they were
giving up athletic scholarships then like they do now.
MASON: Yeah, I was just wondering if he might be able to
play sports- -
RIDDLE: I mean, it's big money now, so that's why they
do it now.
RIDDLE: Because if you get to play in one of these bowl
games, it's worth one million dollar revenue to your
school whether you win or lose. So they're talking about
big dough for the athletic program. So now they need
blacks to be competitive, which is a whole other issue.
That's more closely related to my art and my times.
MASON: No, I was just wondering if he went there to play
football or if he went there to get an architecture
degree. If there was even that distinction.
RIDDLE: Well, I think, probably in those days the
distinctions were blurred.
RIDDLE: Because I think most people who went to college
in those days got a degree. Probably, if I had to bet on
it, there's probably a higher percentage of degreed
athletes then than there is now. In fact, I think the
demands, probably--practice and all that--were probably
less then than they are now. I talked to a guy who went
to UCLA, a Rhodes Scholar named Hal Griffin. He was there
back in the early sixties. He said that it was 50 hours a
week for football during football season, and 60 hours a
week of academics to be a Rhodes Scholar. When you add it
all up, it's 7 times 24, and you've taken 120 off of that.
I mean, that's not much time to sleep there or eat or do
anything else, because it comes out pretty close to the
same amount of time. It's probably about 160 hours. So
you've got 40 hours a week to sleep, over a seven day
period to sleep and go do everything. So I mean it's like
it took up all their time, essentially.
MASON: You said your father studied architecture?
RIDDLE: Uh-huh. You know, my mother went to USC also.
That's where they met. She was a lawyer. She was the
first black women in the history of UCLA law school to get
a degree. She got her degree in 1927.
MASON: I'm sorry, she went to--?
RIDDLE: She went to ' SC also.
MASON: As an undergraduate?
MASON: And then she went to UCLA law school?
RIDDLE: No, she went to ' SC law school.
RIDDLE: She graduated from 'SC--I meant to say ' SC — with
the highest-- She's the first black woman to ever graduate
from 'SC's law school.
RIDDLE: And another thing that they did-- I mean nobody
knows this, but when my father died, they did a lot of
research on him. My brothers and sisters sent me some
articles that I left at work. I wish I had brought them
with me. But she wrote the words to USC ' s fight song, but
they don't get any credit for it. She don't get no
royalties. But that "Fight on for Old 'SC"-- In this
article they wrote about my mother and my father, and they
said Helen Wheeler wrote the words to USC ' s fight song.
We didn't even know that. And my sister was talking
about, "Well, shoot. We ought to be able to sue for some
royalties." [laughter] You know.
But anyway, they were at ' SC together. One last
distinction about my father was he had the record, athletic
record, for the most touchdowns ever scored by a USC player
from the time he played until Anthony [T.] Davis scored
five touchdowns against Notre Dame in '65. He was there
that day, my father, because he went to every ' SC game, and
they honored him over the mike that Davis had broken his
record. He got to stand up, and all his old ' SC buddies- -
Because I used to go to some of those games. And I mean
all these old guys are sitting there, "Hey, Fred!" "Hi,
Bill 1 " [laughter] So it was kind of funny.
And then generations are so bad. I think Ronald
Reagan was governor of California. We went to the Rose
Bowl to see 'SC, and Reagan walked out and people booed.
And my oldest son, Tony [Anthony Thomas Riddle], he went.
It was me, my father, and my oldest son, Tony. We went to
the Rose Bowl and we were all in there and Tony starts
booing. And my father was like-- He was with all his
cronies, and he was like, "Shut up! Goddammit, Johnny!
Can't you make him--? That's disgraceful!" It was like the
generation gap. So then they stood up for the national
anthem, right? So my son didn't stand up. Boy, that just
knocked my father out. "Goddammit, Johnny! Make him stand
up! All my friends are here!" He's talking out the
corner of his mouth. "Can't you make him stand up? Jesus
Christ!" Tony was just sitting there. Since then, I
mean, me and Tony have laughed about that, and Tony kind
of feels bad because he shouldn't have dumped his protest
over on his grandfather. You know, but--
MASON: Because he had served in the war.
RIDDLE: Yeah, and Tony had a-- It was in the year of the
big naturals, Angela [Y. ] Davis and all that. "Power to
the people. "
MASON: So it wasn't necessarily--?
RIDDLE: My father didn't really-- See, he would have
joined the army in the First World War, but he was too
young. And I don't remember now if he didn't get to go
in, or he didn't go overseas. But he was either on the--
A little more than Bill [William J.] Clinton. You know,
but he's either on the periphery of the army or in, but I
don't recall that now. I just remember that he's very
patriotic and that he worked at Douglas Aircraft [Company]
during the Second World War as a structural architect on
Douglas's war planes and--
MASON: Yeah. Because I was going to ask you if he ever
got a chance to work as an architect.
RIDDLE: Oh, yeah. Before the war he worked with Paul
Williams. He was with Paul Williams, who is a noted Los
Angeles architect. He was with Paul Williams's firm, and
then during the war, he went to work at Douglas. And
then, after the war, he went back with Paul for a while as
a specifications writer.
MASON: I'm not sure what that is.
RIDDLE: That's a person who writes what-- The specs are
all the detailed things of what are the specif ications-
If you're going to put these windows in this house, what
size, what kind of hardware, what kind of windows. The
specifics. What kind of nails. Because that's all laid
out somewhere in the architectural plan for a structure.
What kind of doorknobs. So if it's with plumbing, if you
write plumbing specs, what kind of pipe, what size, where
the bends occur, what kind of hardware you would use
there. So that's, technically, the specifications. What
kind of toilets. That's if you're plumbing. ^^Jhat kind of
faucets. Anything related to plumbing, if you're writing
So the rest of his life-- He always worked as an
architect or a spec writer. So at the end of his life, he
worked for a guy who used to work for him named Kerry
Jenkins. Kerry Jenkins formed a successful architectural
firm in Beverly Hills out on Wilshire Boulevard, and my
father worked for him until he died.
MASON: Can you think of any specific projects that your
father had been involved with?
RIDDLE: Well, one of the things that he used to always
take pride in was up along those streets like Rossmore
[Avenue] , some of those real nice streets that you can
take as corridors to Hollywood. Like above Olympic
[Boulevard], and you go up Rossmore. I used to know all
of those streets. There's a lot of English Tudor homes
and a lot of really nice homes there. Well, in that
year, Paul built a lot of those homes. I mean, it was
his design and stuff. My father used to go by and say,
"We did that house." And then we'd go a little further
and he'd say, "We did this one." And we'd go down
another street and he'd say, "I remember doing this one."
Between Vine Street and Wilshire, I'd say, they did a lot
of houses in there that are still there. Some of the
Spanish houses. They both basically did residential
architecture. At one time, I guess, Paul was probably
the most advanced black architect, maybe [not] in the
world, but definitely in the United States, at one time
back in those days, in the thirties, up until the war.
And the weirdest thing is, my wife's family and my
father's and my mother and them, they all knew the same
people, Paul Williams and Delia Williams and all the
different people. It's really weird.
In fact, it's so weird that when I was born--
There's a lady named Alice Garrott who was Carmen's
grandmother. I was born two years before Carmen, but my
mother and father moved into Alice Garrott ' s apartment.
So the first two years I was born, I lived in that
apartment of Carmen's, my wife's, grandmother. But I
didn't meet her until I was fourteen. We have this
picture at Ferndale, that park up there. It's part of
Griffith Park, really, but it's before you get to
Griffith. They have like a little creek and some
crayfish and these beautiful ferns. And you walk down
these paths. And people used to go there for brunches,
and they had where you could cook out and have a nice
lunch and stuff, you know. But there's a picture--
somebody took a picture. It has all the teenagers in
junior high. And I'm on this end of the picture and,
about eight or ten kids later. Carmen's on the other end,
at the same picnic, in the same picture, and we don't
even know each other. So we always laugh about that.
MASON: Did you know all of the same people because of
your class backgrounds and educational backgrounds and
you just moved in certain circles?
RIDDLE: I guess it was like-- See, I guess in those
days, in the black social circle, it wasn't so much
education as it was, like you said, it was like families.
Like, you know, there were postal people, all kinds of —
[tape recorder off] Black community, the social
community, it was like-- If you could mark the decline of
it, it's probably the beginning of the so-called "year of
integration." Because before, when it was like
segregation, blacks had to depend much more on themselves
and their organizations and their structures than they
did after they say, "Okay, everybody's equal." Although
that's always been a lie. The blacks abandoned their own
entrepreneurship. One of the main reasons in every black
city there was like a main black street was because the
black businesses were on that street. That's what made
it the main black street.
MASON: And in L.A., it was Central Avenue.
RIDDLE: Yeah, right. And it was like the shoe stores.
In fact, one of my best friends in high school, his
father owned the Dunlap Shoe Store on Vernon [Avenue] and
Jefferson [Boulevard] . I mean, Vernon and Central
[Avenue] , right on the corner. You know, everybody went
and got their shoes at Dunlap' s. I mean, everybody used
to crack up because everybody had on a pair of Lorenzo ' s
father's shoes at one time, because that was a very
successful-- He had good quality shoes, but you could get
them from a black person. You could try them on. Some
of those stores, they probably wouldn't let you try them
He's just a good example that black businesses
changed. I was in a barbershop this morning, and I was
thinking, "Boy, if I ever had a barbershop, my barbershop
would be called the 'Philosophical Barbershop.'" Because
when I was a kid, that was a seat of knowledge and
information and discussion, like in Eddie Murphy's Coming
to America. I remember those kind of barbershops where
you had to remember when you came into the barbershop so
nobody could get their hair cut ahead of you. But then
there was always conversation about politics and about
the neighborhood and philosophy. And there were like
almanacs, "Man, look in the almanac 1" "Willy's right.
Nineteen twenty-four . " "Joe Louis knocked out Max
Schmeling in March such-and-such, 1938." "Yeah, Fred,
you right." But rather than just argue, they always
referred to the almanac. And they always had an almanac.
It was funny, because even as a kid, these men-- You
couldn't jump in. But it was funny, all these different
characters in the barbershop. Some coming to get their
hair cut, some just coming to hang out, some just popping
by and leaving. But there was always like this turnover
in the barbershop.
But I was in the barbershop this morning and the
barbers didn't come in the door and say, "Hey, hello."
One barber out of four came in and said hello to the
people who were sitting in there. There's no interchange
between the barbers; there's no interchange between the
customers. It was like the epitome of American evolution
to individualism, where everybody's afraid of everybody.
Nobody talks to anybody. See, but that's transferred
over to black people, too. And yet, we're basically a
very verbal race of people, a very communal race of
people at one time. We all came out of communal
structures in Africa that had communal societies where
everybody was related in activity to everybody else. You
just didn't have a whole bunch of people who were in the
particular communal structure who had no role, nothing to
do, no purpose, just sitting around. You didn't have
that. We didn't have that until we got to America, and
it got abstract. I mean, there wasn't anybody just,
"Man, Where's the rest of the tribe?" "Oh man, they just
sitting down on some logs down in the woods just poking
sticks in the ground and feeling sorry for themselves."
I mean, all that stuff came-- It was a made-in-America
MASON: What was the religious background in your family?
You have spoken of a couple of preachers. Or your
parents, what were they?
RIDDLE: Well, I don't know. I can remember my mother
going to the--I still remember what it meant--the AME,
the African Methodist Episcopal church. And when I was
in Bakersfield, my grandmother's church was right-- I
mean, she owned this piece of land. She lived on one
corner, and there was a house full of these people known
as the Tomlins. I mean, they were really poor. It must
have been about thirty of them, it seemed like, and they
just wore the house to the point where the house just
fell down. So then there was this big vacant space.
Then right across from that was this church on the
corner, and that's my grandmother's church. So all she
had to do was walk across the yard to get to church. And
she would make you go to church every Sunday. All
summer, you'd go to Sunday school. Then Sunday school
was over and you came home and you had to hang around for
about an hour and eat something and then she dragged you
back to church. You sat in there for church, and those
pews would be hard and just be flattening out your
behind. You'd be fidgeting and the old people fanning.
And you couldn't play cowboys on Sunday or play cards or
go to the movies. You couldn't do nothing on Sunday.
And then across the street from my grandmother was a
I hope that God forgives me, and the Holiness
people, but my sister Joanne and I-- See, we used to like
to always sleep outdoors. And when we slept on the front
porch, that was a favorite place to sleep. But the
Holiness church went on all night. And they had like
sextets and quintets and drums and, I mean, trumpets,
just like a jazz group. They'd be playing those, and you
could just hear those people clapping and stomping and
these horns blaring. So we would always go over there.
But when you went in the church, we'd sit near the back
doors, because they always had the doors open because it
was always hot. And the people would be jumping and
shouting and be right with this music. And they would
actually get to the place where they would start-- Well,
we didn't know they were speaking in tongues, but they
would transcend their existence and come over to the
Lord. And we used to think that was the funniest thing
you could see. And we would sit there, and we'd be
trying to-- [stifles laughter] . And then when we just
couldn't hold our laughter anymore, we'd just bust out
laughing and run out the door. And nobody ever stopped
us or told us that we couldn't do that, so that's a part
of my church experience. We used to take all our kids to
church. We used to take them to an Episcopalian church
over on the east side, because we liked Father Moore. He
always had these big things of incense and they'd smoke
up the whole church, and we liked that. Then when we got
older, we started taking our kids to a more modern church
called the Church of Christian Fellowship. His theology
was like current theology, how it related to people with
families bringing up kids in the 1950s and sixties.
MASON: So it was interdenominational?
RIDDLE: Uh-huh, uh-huh. So we went to that until we
moved. And then when we moved here I joined--all of us
joined for a minute--the Reverend Albert Cleage ' s Black
[Christian] Nationalist Church, the Shrine of the Black
Madonna. That's the first time I ever heard that God was
black and Jesus was black and it scared the hell out of
me at first, but then it made sense. I mean, because all
the happenings in the Christian era, the time of Jesus'
happening, there was black people. And then when they
were telling you about he had skin of copper and hair of
lamb's wool, that don't sound like no white folks. So
then they started pointing out all the other implications
and things about Abraham and different things where you
could see quite easily where it could be black. And so--
MASON: One of his concubines was African.
RIDDLE: Uh-huh, but--
MASON: Did you do a--? I think somebody told me you did
a commission for that church.
RIDDLE: Yeah. I painted the murals in the church.
MASON: Where is the church located?
RIDDLE: The murals are there, but they dropped the
ceiling. They used to have one of those vaulted ceilings
like in the old theaters, like the old shows down in Los
Angeles, like the Pantages [Theater] . And then they had
the ornate theaters.
MASON: It would be like the Mayan [Theater] .
RIDDLE: Yeah, yeah. And this was an ornate theater here.
I think originally at one time it was called the Gordon
[Theater] back when that area-- That area was the first
suburban area of Atlanta, a white bedroom community area.
And they had this theater called the Gordon that had--
When the Black Christian Nationalists first took over the
church, it had these huge plaster reliefs of these Aryan
kind of semi -nude men and women, but they were white. But
they were more Aryan than Greek. They were like in the
old Greek statue kind of thing.
MASON: Yeah. It sounds like something they'd do in the
RIDDLE: Yeah, but you could tell that they looked more
like the Hitler supermen and women. They definitely had
that European character. They were definitely pure white.
They were all-- You know, that was the decor. So they
took some chisels and just knocked all that out and
cleaned it all up and replastered the walls. So I painted
four sixteen-by- twenty foot murals in there. And then
when I got through, my kids started dropping out of
church. They wanted my wife to be in charge of the
nursery, and here she had just had six kids, so she didn't
want to take care of no more kids in life. So she quit,
then I quit.
^4AS0N: What were the murals called and what did they look
like? They're still there, you said.
RIDDLE: No, they're covered up.
MASON: They're covered up.
RIDDLE: They're not painted over, but--
MASON: They dropped the ceiling down.
RIDDLE: They dropped the ceiling down. The place was so
tall, they could drop the ceiling down and still have
probably about a sixteen foot ceiling.
RIDDLE: And it would still cover the bottom of the
MASON: I see. So they're there and they're not really
being taken care of?
RIDDLE: Who knows. But I didn't paint them to-- See,
this friend of mine, he painted his on plywood and put the
plywood up on the wall. He painted the pieces behind the
altar. And I painted mine right on the plaster because I
thought it was more--
MASON : Permanent ?
RIDDLE: No. When the building goes, the art goes. I
don't believe in saving art. You know, because I just
thought when the building is gone--they tear down the
building or it falls down--the art is gone, too. But that
seemed more in the realm of the artist to make it
permanent, because nothing is permanent anyway.
Then that was basically church. Except we used to
dress up, clean up, wash up all our kids and put them in
line and march them off to church every Sunday. I still
have pictures of that in memory and in photo albums. But
here as older people, we-- I haven't been to church in so
long, I'd hate to confess how long ago it was.
MASON: So, let's see. How was your family involved in,
say, the civil rights movement?
RIDDLE: Which one?
MASON: Well, say, in the fifties in Los Angeles around, I
don't know, the Rumford Fair Housing Act and those kinds
of issues -
RIDDLE: Oh, I was in between, because I had joined the
air force in '53 and I got out in ' 57 . I was married and
I had the beginnings of a family and I didn't really
participate in anything. I mean, there was a lot of
things that you saw, like--
You know, it really came down to what Malcolm [X]
said, "If you're south of the Canadian border, you're in
the South." It didn't matter whether you lived on the
West Coast, the East Coast, Michigan or Mississippi. I
mean, again, to quote Malcolm, because he summed it up so
well, "You catch hell in America because you're black, not
because you're a Christian or a Republican or a Democrat
or any of those other hyphenateds . " I mean, black people
just have had a harder time.
Los Angeles has a slicker way of segregation and
prejudicial treatment than, say, Louisiana. Because in
Louisiana, they just put up a sign, "No niggers allowed."
But maybe in California they didn't have a sign, but they
had the same mental attitude. I used to go look for jobs,
and one time I didn't know I was being discriminated
against. But now, in hindsight, I look back on some of
those visual remembrances, and I see all the white boys
going to get jobs at Southern Bell [telephone company] in
T-shirts with cigarettes rolled up under their sleeve and
I was dressed in a fine suit from Meyer and Frank of
Portland, Oregon, and I couldn't get-- They took my
application and said, "Well, we'll let you know." I can
still see those white boys who took the test with me
walking on back in the back, going to phase two, and I was
going to phase out. So, I mean, you know, it's-- That
part's the same. It's the same then as it is now as it
was epitomized by Rodney King and the insurrection.
There's nothing changed. I mean, we left-- The most
brutal police that there ever were to me anywhere I've
ever been were right there in Los Angeles.
MASON: I agree.
RIDDLE: I mean, they were gestapo, you know? I mean,
they would mess with you just to be messing with you. And
traffic court--just like people came to say later--was
Just us. Traffic court was always blacks and Mexicans.
It's just a system that we paid to keep people employed.
The LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department], they were
ruthless. They were ruthless before the Watts riots and
ruthless after it and ruthless through Dead Wyler right up
to Rodney King. I mean, they still sic dogs on black
folks. I mean, that's cold-blooded. And with impunity.
I hated the LAPD. I thought they were the worst people.
And at one time, just before I left, they were averaging
killing eighteen people a year under questionable
circumstances, which is one and a half people a month.
I can remember one time they almost killed me for
nothing. I was running to teach night school at L.A. [Los
Angeles] High [School], because I used to teach night
school over there. And I was late, because my friend and
I, we stopped and drank a pitcher of beer, which I
shouldn't have done. But anyway, I did. I had three
hours to kill between the end of school and night school.
So I parked my car and I slid across the seat, and I
jumped out on the passenger's side. I was going to run
across the athletic field because my ceramic room was
right at the gate coming off the track, and I was late.
And out of the corner of my eye, I saw this car park
behind me. I thought it was somebody else coming to go to
night school. And I saw those doors open. But out of the
corner of my eye, I saw one man reaching for something.
And I stopped. It was two plain-clothes police that said
I had run a boulevard stop down on-- I forget the name of
that street down on the other side of L.A. High, now. And
they thought I had seen them and I was trying to escape
and it was a stolen car. They shot at me. If I hadn't
seen them and just kept running, they'd have shot me. And
then they would have said, "Oh, we're sorry. We killed
this man by mistake." And then when they found out I was
a teacher and that I hadn't stolen the car, they said,
"Oh, well, you'd better get on to class." But they felt
guilty because they was going to kill me. So, I mean,
L.A. 's like that. It was then; it is now.
TAPE NUMBER: I, SIDE TWO
SEPTEMBER 5, 1992
RIDDLE: That's the environment, you know. But I'm
getting up, on some levels, to the verge of art. So maybe
I should back off from that.
MASON: Okay. So you went to school before you joined the
air force, then? A little bit?
RIDDLE: Not really.
RIDDLE: I mean, I just went to play bid whist and hang
MASON : Okay .
RIDDLE: But then when I went in the service, I came out--
You could get the GI Bill if you got good grades.
MASON: Okay. Where were you stationed?
RIDDLE: We were inducted in Los Angeles. And we got on
this bus going up to San Francisco to a place called
Walnut Creek, which had this Parks Air Force Base, which
is where they had basic training. And, as black people
tend to gravitate towards each other, sit together and
talk-- Everybody had their orders in some brown envelopes
just like these. So everybody pulled out their-- The bus
hadn't been on the road ten minutes, and everybody is
pulling out their orders looking at their name. And you
see "Riddle, John Thomas, Jr." Then it has the AFC- -that
was your air force identity. It's almost like your Social
Security card. It said, "AF 1947 0629." The guy said,
"You'll never forget that number." And you don't. I
mean, like, because you say it so much--to get paid, to do
this, to get tested on- -that you always remembered your
number. Your rank, your number, and all that.
Well, anyway, after every black person there was this
N in parenthesis. Even though I looked at mine
individually, I think everybody's got one. I see it maybe
ten or twelve times. But I'm new to all these people and
I don't realize that all the N's is next to black folk.
So it doesn't take too much of the stretch of the
imagination to hopefully think that means Negro. So I
said, "What's this? Eugene Simpson, N. What's yours?"
"N. Say, man, that must mean 'nigger.'" We were fifty
miles out of L.A. now.
Now, we're figuring they do that to all the blacks so
that, putting the best light on the picture, they don't
want to get too many blacks by natural selection process
into the same group. I mean, you might have a group of
forty men in the training squad or something like that.
Maybe sixty-four, because I think it was sixteen to each
group and there were four groups. And maybe they might
have by just natural selection put nine blacks over here
and only two over here. But this way they can say, "Dut,
dut, dut, dut, black, dut, dut, dut, dut, black, dut, dut,
dut, dut, black." And they can spread the blacks out
evenly, thereby having less of a problem by having too
many blacks together. Because they might get together and
figure out some other racist stuff that was going on,
right? So, I mean, this is like fifty miles out of L.A.
And everybody already knows this much about it and we
ain't been in the air force but an hour.
So then you find out when you get to technical
school-- I got out of basic. When you get out of basic,
they give you a stripe if you haven't screwed up in basic.
So you become an airman third class. Yeah. So you get
out of basic and they send you somewhere. Now, it's
usually to a training school. Now, I was willing to go to
Biloxi, Mississippi to go to radio school because I wanted
to be on flying status. That's why I went into the air
force anyway, because I wanted to fly all over the world
in airplanes and stuff. So I look up, and they're sending
me to Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Now, Cheyenne, Wyoming is a cowboy hick town. They
had no blacks living in Cheyenne. No black men, no black
women, no black families at that time. This was 1953. I
got up to Cheyenne. That's where all of the menial
service jobs are: supply school. That's where the school
was. All the menial stuff listed, all the no-rank. Now,
the rank was down in Texas at aircraft and engines, air
speed indicators. Everything, the technical, mechanical
thing to make these planes fly, because that's what the
air force is in business for. That's where the white boys
went. I didn't know that until after I went through
supply school, got my supply number. There was like a six
digit number that said what your job was, and mine was in
aircraft petroleum and lubricants. POL [petroleum, oil,
and lubricants], or something like that. Anyway, that's
[who] put the oil and the gas in the planes.
When I got to Japan, which was my next station, I'm
out on the flight line, and all I see are white boys. You
know, but I mean we'll talk to them, because I'm putting
gas in the planes and stuff. And we're talking, "Where
you from?" "I'm from Ohio, Mississippi," anyplace. You
know, "Anyplace USA." "How long have you been in the
service?" "Oh, I been in here eighteen months." You
know, just basic talk. This guy's got three, four stripes
on his arm. I only got the same two that I got when I got
out of Cheyenne, Wyoming. I never got more than two the
whole time I was in the air force. I used to look at
these white guys--they'd be in-- But see, they want to
keep you if you're highly skilled, because they spend a
lot of money to train you. So they entice you with rank.
So all the rank is going to the guys who know how to fix
the planes and do these technical things. But the people
who do food service, make sure that the sheets and stuff
get cleaned and all this menial stuff, they ain't going to
get no rank. So they're giving all the rank to the white
boys. All through the service I saw that.
And I'll end on my service by this: At one time,
through the service, I was a veterans' counselor, and
these black guys would come. This was the year when the
navy and the air force and everybody was trying to purge
as many blacks out of the service as they could. So they
would offer these black guys general discharge, anything
but an honorable. And they had these codes on your
discharge forms that-- I mean, nobody knows that they're
there, unless you have the discharge code book, which I
had as a veterans' counselor. I had access to it at one
time. They had the worst descriptions.
I mean, it would say K-3 in some little box. And all
you see is you got a general discharge and you run out and
say, "Man, look. I did my time. So give me a job?" See,
because they would always say, "Have you been in the
service?" And you'd say, "No." "Well, we can't hire and
train you and we know Uncle Sam is going to draft you.
You go take care of your service obligation and come back,
and we'll give you a job!" That used to be the line
before you went in the service. That's what they would
all say to you. These guys would come back, and up on
here it would say K-3. And you'd look up in the book.
And K-3 would be "homosexual tendencies." And this guy is
walking around, and he may be homosexual, he may not be.
But he's walking not knowing it says that. "Thief." I
mean, it wouldn't be quite that bad, but it would be
"distrustful, dishonest." And these employers could look
and "Sorry, Mr. Jones. We don't have any work today."
See now, they are shooting people down like that, and
these people are running around thinking they got a good
Now, the service was doing that right up until the
time where they said, "Let's have an all-volunteer army."
I don't know if you remember that. Because it was a semi-
peacetime. The white boys could make more money not
messing with the service. The draft wasn't drafting
people. So let's have an all-volunteer army. So blacks
started gravitating towards that, because there's two
things about the service: If you stay and you do your
job, you're going to get promoted. And rank rules. A
sergeant can tell a corporal what to do, a corporal can
tell a private, a lieutenant can tell a sergeant, the
captain-- I mean, it's there. It's the rank. And if you
go against the rank, you get busted. You get put out of
the service for not cooperating. So here's a chance for
some blacks to have a skill, have a guaranteed job--which
is another hard thing for black folk- -and have authority
over other people based on rank.
So blacks gravitated to the service, the same way
they did to the post office. Back in my mother's time,
she worked in the post office. The joke was, "Where can
you find more Ph.D.'s than anywhere else in black America?
In the post office." Because even though you might be a
Ph.D., you couldn't get no job, so you had to work in a
post office. You were a clerk. They weren't usually
carriers, but they were usually the clerks, the people who
cased up the mail and got the mail ready for the carriers
to take out. And it was the same there, except it was
reverse. Blacks had seniority. And then, all of a
sudden, the next thing you heard coming out of the
Pentagon, there's too many black people in the army, too
many in the air force, too many in the marines. We've got
to abolish this volunteer service, because blacks was
overusing it. It scared the hell out of them white
people, just like you said about the art.
Anytime the white people see the black people making
progress, it scares the hell out of them. It shouldn't,
but it does. If you complete your education, and you
start making headway, it's going to be, "Oh, we've got too
many tenured blacks on our faculty. Isn't that--" You
scare white people, because you beat the system. You're
not in the prison system, you're not on drugs, you're not
a prostitute, you're not on welfare. You can beat their
system. That makes you dangerous. They've got to figure
out how to pick you off some kind of way. "Well, how'd
this Negro get through? Where did we go wrong?"
[laughter] "Put out a study." [laughter] Those kinds of
things. I mean, but that's America.
MASON: Yeah. Well, how long did you stay in Japan?
RIDDLE: Two years. Twenty- two months, actually.
MASON: Did you like it there? Or what did you get out of
being in Japan, if anything?
RIDDLE: Well, I think the most memorable was the two
seventeen-day ocean voyages to Japan. I look back and
that was magnificent, being in the middle of the Pacific
Ocean in the middle of the night with the moon shining on
the water. Everything was silent, even on a night when
there was no moon and it was pitch black and all you could
hear was the sound of the water against the ship and the
ocean in general. I mean, you couldn't see nothing.
That's spectacular: seeing the ocean-- We went through a
storm, and seeing the ocean in a storm stage with huge
waves and gray and misty and you couldn't see that far
ahead of the ship-- The immensity of the ocean. It's a
good thing to put you in size and world relationship to
your surroundings, to be just a little thing. I think
about it now, and I think about-- That's one of my
favorite things, is the middle passage. I think about how
they used to talk about scurvy and beriberi, lack of fresh
water and this and that. And then you think about those
black people in the ship. But that was very memorable.
The thing that I found out, too, it was the first
time I found out how much black people think alike,
although we don't admit it and we don't cooperate with
each other. I remember walking down in Japan in a place
called Fukuoka City--that's where I was stationed, down at
Itazuki Air Force Base on the island of Kiushu, down in
southern Japan. I hadn't been there maybe a month, and I
passed this black soldier walking down one of these dark
streets. And he said, "Hey, brother." I said, "Uh-huh,
what's happening man?" We did the usual black greetings,
you know. "Where do all the black folk hang out?" I
always remember that. You know, black folk always want to
find out when they 're in a strange place where do the
other black people hang out. And then I noticed how many
black people have mustaches and beards. And I used to
wonder-- All black men have mustaches. You couldn't have
a beard in the service, but they all had mustaches. "Why
do blacks all have mustaches?" So I cut mine off because
I didn't want to participate in some blackness that I
didn't know. I would just be carried along with the mass
of black folk. Because I like to know why I do what I do,
I remember that. Then I remember that after you get
over your initial culture shock about being in a strange
place, you find out that the Japanese people didn't like
us at all.
MASON: They don't like anybody who's not Japanese.
RIDDLE: Yeah, that's true. They're like the French on
that level. But the white people that I was with, they
thought the Japanese loved them.
MASON: They thought what?
RIDDLE: I mean, the white guys that were over there in
Japan, a lot of them thought the Japanese people loved
them. And yet, to me maybe because I have that-- See, we
all have that antenna as black people. Anything racial
and these little antenna come, and they be searching for
the direction where the racism is coming from, you know.
Overt, covert, still it would set off them antennas. I
just noticed that they didn't like us. But I did notice
that if you took the time to be involved in their culture,
to learn their language to the degree that you were trying
to deal with Japanese, to that degree they would accept
you up to the point of what we call now in current jargon
the "glass ceiling." There was a certain barrier that
you'd never cross over if you weren't Japanese. But they
didn't see that. I used to always see this-- I still,
when I think about Japan, I see this huge twenty- foot-high
chain-link fence around the unapproachable parts of the
Japanese culture that the Americans were not going to be
involved in. So I remember that.
MASON: Were you interested at all in the art and
architecture that was there? No?
RIDDLE: Uh-uh. [negative] The service is the dawn of my
interest in art, though. When I left Japan, I went to
Portland, Oregon, and I was a clerk. I sat at this desk
right in front of this clock--although the clock was
probably fifty, sixty feet away--but it was up on this
wall. It was a big, old clock. And you could sit there
and watch how much time you had left in the service. Tick
tock, tick tock. And I mean, just sitting there I learned
a lot of things. I learned that I smoked cigarettes every
forty-five minutes. Because I was sitting next to this
guy named Mudget, a white guy. He smoked every fifteen.
Every fifteen minutes I could hear him rustling in
his pocket, getting out his Lucky Strikes. And I was
always looking at the clock, and I began to see that there
was a correlation between 12:00, 12:15, 12:30, 12:45, and
1:00 and Mudget digging in his pockets. Then I started
noticing that if he was on a time frame, I was too. And I
noticed mine was every forty- five minutes I lit a
cigarette. So then I got to the point where I wouldn't
smoke as long as I could last. And I got so I could get
to 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 1:00. Then I got to the place
where I didn't have to smoke no more. So, I mean, I liked
it for that.
There was a guy sitting over on this side. He was a
staff sergeant named Tony Hoffus and he had been in the
air force long enough to have been a prisoner of war in
the Second World War. This was like '56 so, you know, he
was a career soldier. He had a tattoo, one of those kind
of prison camp tattoos that the Germans put on, like the
Jews always show their number? See, they would actually
take and tattoo with India ink a permanent number on you.
He had one of those numbers from when he was in a prisoner
of war camp. He had gotten captured by the Germans. But
he was Dutch, so they didn't kill him like they might have
a Jewish person. But anyway, he loved Rembrandt, and he
was always looking at Rembrandt. He said, "John, John,
look at this." And I'd look at Rembrandt. Then I started
MASON: Was he a practicing artist?
RIDDLE: No, he was a connoisseur. He liked music and
art. He was like the classic music appreciation person.
He felt that music, art was important in his life. He used
to have my wife and I over to dinner, he and his wife,
Katie. And they had like a Rembrandt --you know, it was a
reproduction, obviously--of the girl with the broom in the
half door. It shows this girl, she's leaning, looking out
the half door, and there's a broom with her. And I liked
that picture so much.
I mean, I learned from him a lot about art, but I also
learned that in this modern age of black printmakers, for
instance, and photo-reproduced artworks that everybody
has-- That they're popular. Like Varnette. I mean, I know
Varnette Honeywood, because she was a student when I was
teaching at L.A. High. I never had her in a class, but I
knew her then, and I still do. But see, black people will
pay a lot of money for a reproduction of a print, not even
a handmade one by the artist actually doing the work, but a
machine-made copy in additions--like Ernie Barnes--of
thirty thousand, right? And I learned from Tony that if
you could go buy a reproduction of a Rembrandt for two
dollars, that reproductions only have value aesthetically.
They didn't have value of appreciation as art. They
didn't have value of appreciation as an investment or any
of that-- just appreciation of the work itself. And it's
hanging in your house because you like it.
So, I mean, I learned a lot of things, but I didn't
know that I was going to like art. Because I got out of
the service and you could go to school on the GI Bill. I
wanted to be a geologist, because I liked earth science.
So I studied that through almost two years at LACC [Los
Angeles City College] . The place where I used to go play
bid whist, now, I was back at the same place studying. I
got my first degree I ever got in any kind of educational
institute. I didn't get a high school diploma; I didn't
get a junior high diploma. I always hung with the bad
kids, and I always managed to get kicked out of the school
by graduation time. So the first diploma I ever got was
associate of arts from L.A. City College over there on
Vermont. And that was right at the time it was turning
into-- The Cal[ifornia] State Pomona campus was on L.A.
City College's campus. Then they moved out there, out San
Bernardino freeway to where they are now. It's now Cal
State University, L.A.
MASON : Okay .
RIDDLE: But at that time, it was at City College campus.
Then it moved out and started the campus that ' s out there
now. A lot of my friends transferred, because they said
they wanted to go to a state college. I stayed because it
was cheaper. You could go to City College for six dollars
a semester plus books. So you couldn't beat that.
MASON : No .
RIDDLE: Plus, I mean, it was right in town, whereas you
had to go way out there to the San Bernardino freeway to
get to-- It seemed like a long way, but after I started
going there, it wasn't that long a way anyway.
But I got an associate of arts, and it was the first
time I ever got to wear one of those caps and gowns. That
kind of was very influential, because when I got to the
junior and senior year of college, I made the dean's honor
list. So I had gone off from being what my mother and
father wanted me to be like when I was in public school to
finally what I should have been. But it took the maturity
of the service. I don't know. I come back and all --not
all, but a lot--of my friends were dead, a lot of them in
jail, a lot of them whose lives was all screwed up. So it
was good for me to get out of L.A.
MASON: You can get that way from playing bid whist all
RIDDLE: Well, that was-- Well, yeah. See, we used to
ditch school and play bid whist and go over to this friend
of mine, where all the kids hung out, named Earl Tatum.
Instead of going to high school, we would go hang out at
Earl's house and play bid whist and get in trouble. But
you know, the weird thing is that there was no incentive
even then for emphasis on black males to become all they
could be. The emphasis then, as it is now, is a kind of
self -destructive thing.
I remember I did a piece of art once called The Pre-
programmed, and it was based on the fact that black youth
were pre-programmed to do what they're doing now. Except
the drive-by shootings and the murder thing wasn't in it
when I grew up, but everything else was. It was just
negative behaviour. Negative outlook. Develop your
exterior. Have a front. Be cool. Be hip. Even if you
don't have nothing, look hip. Look like you had
everything. Walk like you had everything. Have a
pimpstep in your walk. Talk plenty of stuff, and let all
of that exterior-- Stand on the corner with the other men
and hold your private parts to show you was a man. All
those other black games that we still play that spin off
into basketball and other things. You know? But black
people have always-- Black men have always emphasized the
exterior, the illusion that "Yeah, man, I've got it all."
They ain't got nothing. And everybody else know you don't
have nothing, but nobody said, "Man, you ain't got
nothing." They said, "You bad, man." They know you ain't
got nothing. Talking about you bad because you got on
some $200 tennis shoes. So it was fronting then, and it's
MASON: What medium was that piece that you were talking
RIDDLE: It was a painting. But I always have done-- Not
always. I kind of wanted to just be an abstract painter.
But then I remember when I read Seize the Time: [The
Story of the Black Panther Party] in ' 68 and Bobby Seale
said in there-- He's a got a line in there where he says,
"Art ain't shit." And when I read that I was just
completing nine years of night school, because I always
went to school at night because I always had a family. It
took me nine years from the time I went to City College to
the time I graduated from Cal State with a B.A. in
education. It took me nine years of night school to pick
up four years' worth of credentials. But, I mean, I never
quit. I used to think, if you quit-- Wherever you stop on
any odyssey in your life, if you quit, that's where you'll
be. Now, you may have to cut back from running to
crawling, but you've got to keep making a little forward
progress. You've got to do that. Because once you stop,
it's harder to start it all up again.
MASON: So what degree were you going for at night?
RIDDLE: Well, I switched from geology and earth science
to art. And then I was in art and English. I said I'd
better get a job teaching school, because I had a family.
And then I switched from geology to art with an art minor
and an English major. And then art, I started liking it
more. So art took over as a major, English took the
minor. By the time I graduated, I had a B.A. in education
with an emphasis on being an art teacher.
MASON: Did you have to pick a medium? Painting or
RIDDLE: Actually, I started off painting, but I liked-- I
found an interesting thing in school, because you had to
take all the different classes. I can remember when I
took ceramics just as an elective. And I remember one day
sitting at the potter's wheel, and I was making-- Because
they won't let you on the potter's wheel at first. They
make you do hand construction, learn the theory and
techniques and all of that, some glazes. The thing I
remember was making a piece of pottery, and I lost it on
the wheel. I took it off and I set it over there, and I
started on another. I was centering and I happened to
look over at this piece, and I realized that it was a
three-dimensional blob. It created its own shadows, it
occupied its own space. You didn't have to draw it
because it was already there. You didn't have to try to
render shadows and values and everything because they were
already there. You didn't have to try to figure out where
the opening in the piece would be, what they call the
negative space, because it was already there.
I became intrigued with that. I said, "Well, I like
sculpture better." Because even though I might not be
able to draw that exact edge that I want, I could take
that clay and I could push it and bend it until I saw the
formal relationship between what I was trying to do and
what came in the next part. I could see that continuity
because it was there. If you turned it real slow and it
made sense over here, but you turned it over here and
there was no relationship, then you had to effect some
kind of change between this side and that side. And then
you start thinking analytically, like, "What would an ant
see if he crawled along the table and he looked up?"
Because you've got all these views.
RIDDLE: But you didn't have to draw them. Like, you try
to sit up and draw six views of the same vase from one
position. So you're only seeing one reality, the other
five are your imagination. But if you put it on a
turntable and you turn it slowly, you can use that energy
that you're trying to imagine; you can put that direct
energy into the transformation of concept to reality. So
I liked that, you know. And so I began to think--
MASON: So you stopped painting, and then you went into
RIDDLE: Sort of.
RIDDLE: Yeah, in a way. And then a weird thing happened
one time, because I like printmaking, too. Etching. But,
I mean, you had to work like hell for an etching. You had
to work the plates and you had to ink them and you had to
soak the paper and put it in a blotter so it would be just
right when you put it through the press. You had to wipe
the plates where the highlights were supposed to be and
all the ink was in the right place. You'd run it through
the press and then you ' d take the paper and tape it up to
the wall so the paper wouldn't get crinkled when it dried.
Because it was really 100 percent rag--good paper. All of
that for one print, and then you might not like it, you
know. And I mean it was drudgery. But I mean, it was
discipline. But it was a form, and I liked it.
Then one day I went to a faculty art show where all
the faculty people had the chance to put their art up for
the students to see. I think this guy's name was Mr.
Fifer or something like that. Something with an F. Mr.
Fiedler. And Mr. Fiedler, what had happened at that time,
he was my printing teacher, but he had paintings. I
always was familiar with his print work. And to see his
paintings, I mean, it was like he had been completely
unchained from the technical drudgery process to the
direct process. If you want red, you stick your brush in
the red, hit the canvas. I mean, he had so much freedom
and just energy and movement. And I was looking at his
art. And I came back and said, "Mr. Fiedler, I noticed,
when you don't make prints, you're so free." He said,
"Oh, I feel so free. I may never go back to printmaking. "
Because he had just discovered this.
So then I found out that art is boring. So I found
out that if you switched from-- You did sculpture till you
got tired of it, then you switched to painting, and then
you switched to-- At that particular time, I could do
painting, sculpture, and ceramics. They were all a
different medium. But by switching and always seeing what
I saw as the relationship, anyway, between the three, I
always had a fresh media to work with. That way I didn't
get bored and stressed out by the fact that I'm tired of
this, you see. So that way I felt like I could keep a
continual kind of growth going, and that's how I evolved
into always switching media. So like, right now, I'm
painting, but I'm thinking I've got to move to assemblage,
because assemblage is the beginning of the manipulation of
physical objects, even if they're painted. Still, you've
got to start using nail and glue and other things besides
MASON: What was the first assemblage that you can
RIDDLE: The first ones I really did were-- I mean, I
guess I had done some others. Well, I had been welding,
too. I used to love to weld found objects. I think all
my materials I wanted to come out of things that people
had discarded that I could reclaim-- Burnish up, polish
up. You always had to cut a piece or a part off. I had
this rule: you couldn't take the found object in its
exact context and stick it in some art. You had to cut a
piece off; you had to do something to it so it wasn't the
same as what you found. But it was still either
symbolically recognizable as being what it was or fit some
other purpose in the context of parts.
MASON: I think you have one picture of one of the earlier
RIDDLE: Oh, yeah. Those are funny pieces.
MASON: They're what pieces?
RIDDLE: That's when I used to sweep stuff out of the
middle of the street .
MASON: Okay. This is from Black Artists on Art and it's
called Street Trial and it's dated 1968 and it's welded
RIDDLE: We were talking about how cold-blooded the police
are. And that was like the police arrested you, tried
you, and convicted you right in the street with their
guns. That's why that man had that big hole in him. But
like all of these pieces-- I used to get up in the
morning, like on Sunday morning, and take a cardboard box,
a dustpan, and a broom, and drive and park.
I don't know how long you've been in Los Angeles, but
at one time in Los Angeles they used to have these signs
that the traffic department would put out and then pick
them up every day. And they would say "No left turn."
And they would put them right in the middle of the
intersection. And they would be facing so that-- You
know, what directions the people could-- If they didn't
want anybody to turn left, they'd have two facing this way
and two facing this way. So everybody saw "No left turn"
during certain hours. Then they would come along with
this truck, and a guy would pick them up and put them back
in the truck. The truck would never stop rolling. He
would just go real slow. He'd take them up and stash them
somewhere till the next day. But now, in the center of
the intersections, even after they stopped using that
method of traffic control in Los Angeles, all the debris
from the tires is pushed to the middle. It's still there.
If you drive through the middle of the intersection
in the left-hand lane, [if] you get right in the middle,
you'll see "od" from "Ford" where somebody hit somebody
else and part of their grille parts had fallen off. Now,
this was before everything was plastic, too. See, most of
the stuff in the street was metal. Now it's plastic and
rubber, so it was harder to deal with. But there were
always screws and nuts and bolts and bottle caps and all
kinds of weird things that you would never expect. So I
would go out and harvest the intersections . I'd sweep up
five or six intersections, come home, dump the stuff out
on a big table and sort the dirt. Because you'd get all
the rocks and glass and everything, too. And if I found
an interesting piece, I'd set that aside.
So I would have me this whole collection of just what
I called fragments that I was going to turn into ghetto
flowers. I was just going to take some brass rod and weld
them, fuse them together by dripping. I used to have all
kinds of methods. One time I took a hubcap. It didn't
melt. I don't know what it was made of, but brass
wouldn't stick to it. I could just put ghetto parts in
there from the intersections, and they'd all kind of
gravitate to the concave surface. And I could just use
that and drop molten brass rod in there, and that would
stick all these different parts together. Then I would
have something that was shaped like the inside of the
hubcap. But it was all these different fragments. So I
put a stem on it, and it was a ghetto flower.
But then when I got more interested in the prison and
in the police and all that, I started making people. But
these people actually evolved from ceramics when I used to
do ceramics. This is probably a machine cut out that was
kind of bent. And this is a glob of something that was in
an intersection. I used to just go around just looking.
One of the most interesting-- I don't know if you
know Bill [William E.] Pajaud?
MASON: Yeah, we interviewed him.
RIDDLE: Me and Pajaud-- He was at Atlanta Life. He was a
curator for their art collection. He was an artist, but
he had quit doing art though. He said, "Man, art's too
hard. I quit. I ain't doing it." So I used to go get
him on Saturday and drag him. "Come on, Pajaud. We're
going to do art." And he would go sketch, and I would go
sketch. But we sketched totally different things. But
every Saturday morning I'd go get Pajaud and I'd sweep up
some intersections and go to the junkyard and we'd hang
out for maybe three or four hours .
I talked to Pajaud yesterday. He's in Las Vegas,
now. I found a picture of his father [William E. Pajaud,
Sr.]. His father was a musician in the Eureka Brass Band.
He used to always do those Eureka Brass Bands. And I was
in the library researching--that ' s one of the things I
freak out on. I'd rather do research than the art. So I
was in there researching one day, and I saw his father's
picture in an old book of New Orleans jazz musicians. And
I said, "This has got to be Pajaud's dad," because his
name was spelled the same, and I remembered Pajaud said
his father played trombone. He was in the hall of fame
in this book. So I xeroxed that page, and I want to send
it to Pajaud. So I got his address yesterday.
But Pajaud and I would go out. I got to the place
where I used to call it--it's a word that starts with an
"R. " I can't even think of it now. But it was like
going out and finding junk. One of my games I used to
love to play was-- Over on the east side there were still
some railroad tracks, and some of these railroad tracks
led to places where they ground up cars, smashed them up,
ground them up into little bits--little twisted, gnarled,
rusty bits of metal . They would ship them in these
boxcars over to Long Beach. They had this big conveyor- -
because I followed the trail one day, and they had this
big conveyor. All the metal scrap would go up this
conveyor and you'd see it dropping off, making noise by
falling in the hull of this ship. This was like in the
real early seventies, late sixties, between '65 and '70.
All these ships had Japanese names: the Nara Maru, the
Suzi Moru. the Ekudu Moru. All these ground-up car parts
were going to Japan to come back as Toyotas, Datsuns, all
these cars. But at the time, the Japanese hadn't come
back. See, the Japanese just made compact cars originally.
MASON : Yeah .
RIDDLE: Little gas mileage cars.
MASON: Yeah, because we have better steel than they do.
RIDDLE: Yeah. And they ground up our cars, took the
ground-up parts to Japan, created these little tinny,
thirty-mile-a-gallon cars, when we were getting sixteen
and twelve, called them compact cars. It killed us. You
could drive those from suburbia to Los Angeles. It saves
huge amounts on your gas bills, because at the same time
our cars were evolving to the big fins, and they were
getting more and more gaudy. The gaudier they were-- The
big headlights and ornaments. And here the Japanese were
making these little compacts.
I did a piece of art about this. This is a
divergence. But I remember one time there was a police
station that's gone now. It was up on Pico just by
Rimpau. In fact, that's the street I almost got shot on,
was Rimpau .
MASON: Oh, yeah.
RIDDLE: It was right next to a Sears store up there on
Pico. It sat right out on the sidewalk. It was a
classic police station. It had the steps going up and
glass balls on the little lampposts and you could look in
there and see what was happening. So I used to like to
go sketch in front of the police station. But it was in
the days of the Black Panthers and all that, and they
thought that I was some kind of revolutionary drawing
diagrams. They used to send people out to ask me what
the hell I was doing and all this. And I used to like it
after I got used to it. Because at first, they'd always
send out some little rookie, and you could tell because
his hat was all down on his ears. "What are you doing,
fella?" You'd tell him and he'd be confused and he'd go
back and they would send a more senior person out. And
you could always get them to talk about the Jews . I was
teaching in Beverly Hills, so it must have been '70,
about then. You start talking about the Jews, and those
old racist crackers would forget what you were there for.
They'd start talking about the Jews, too. Then you'd let
them run off about the Jews and anti-Semitism for four or
five minutes. They'd say, "Well, see you later, buddy."
And they ' d go on back and leave you alone .
MASON: You were a friend after- -
RIDDLE: Uh-huh. That's how I knew how to get rid of
So anyway, I was doing two kinds of sketches. I
just wanted to sit there and look at the police
department. Now, this was the Vietnam era, too, and the
police they were recruiting were Vietnam veterans. They
still were wearing their crew cuts and they had the-- I
remember one night I'll never forget. It was changing
shifts and these cops came, they were going into the
police station. There was about six of them, and they
were kind of playing because it wasn't their routine.
They got in line and one guy said, "Hut, two--" and they
went marching in just like they were in the Marine Corps.
But the other thing I saw was they all came in Datsuns
and Toyotas. So I put that in my picture. Because, see,
all the police at that time-- Not all, because-- Just
like they were in Simi Valley, you know, where they tried
Rodney King. They were all in Redondo Beach, Hermosa
Beach, Huntington Beach, all down the coast, which meant
they had to come a hell of a long way to get to this
police station in the black neighborhood up on Pico, to
do their eight hours of occupation duty. And they drove
these little compact cars, because they had a sixty-,
seventy-mile round trip. See, I was looking at all that.
That ' s how I remember when the Datsuns and the Toyotas
were just little teeny cars. That's how I see that
relationship through art. That's why, to me, I can see a
lot of social relationships, which goes back to the
beginning of this long discourse on Bobby Seale saying,
"Art ain't shit. "
MASON: Okay. You know, I should stop you here, because
the tape is going to run out and I don't want you to get
started and then we have to stop.
TAPE NUMBER: II, SIDE ONE
SEPTEMBER 5, 1992
MASON: You were around the police station and Bobby Seale
RIDDLE: You know, I was right at a place where I met my
first black artist--who I consider my first black artist:
Noah Purifoy. I knew Ruth [G.] Waddy. I was out of
school then, but I was at a crossroads when I read what
Bobby Seale said. I didn't really want to do social
commentary as much as I wanted to just do great big
abstract, expressionistic pieces that let you have the
freedom to splash color and do all those kinds of things.
MASON: Is that how you had been painting in school?
RIDDLE: No, I had never even done it. I had never
considered it. I mean, it was just-- It was like I still
got the urge for it. Maybe I'll never do it; maybe I'll
never get the courage to just be abstract, because it
takes a different courage to stand on a reputation of
color and form and that kind of expression devoid of
classic subject matter. You can get a reputation off
classic subject matter. You can draw like Charles [E.]
White: over and over are different images, but it still
becomes Charles White's style.
So anyway, that's another thing. It was right before
the Watt riots, and I met Ruth Waddy.
MASON: How did you meet her?
RIDDLE: I don't remember. It's like when you meet people
that you always have known and liked. Sometimes it's real
hard to remember because maybe the meeting was so
inauspicious that you just don't remember, you know. But
you remember some of the things that came after.
I remember Ruth didn't live too far from me up ■
Western [Avenue] . I lived at Western and Twenty- seventh
[Street] , and she lived just above Venice [Boulevard] on
Western. So we were neighbors of sorts. I remember one
time Ruth called one Saturday. It was a cloudy Saturday,
kind of like this, except it was a little more threatening
looking. And she said, "John, I want you to meet
somebody. Could you come by and pick me up?" I came by
and picked her up. She took me over to Noah Purifoy's
He lived on La Brea [Avenue] , somewhere between Adams
[Boulevard] and Washington [Boulevard] , or Washington and
Venice. Somewhere right in that part of it. We went over
there, and here was this man living in this little house
in the back. He had made everything in the house: the
couches, the rugs, the beds, the paneling, the door. It
was the most artistic thing. Everything had the stamp of
Noah Purifoy: collector of odds, ends, scraps, discarded
stuff turned into really elegant things. So he talked and
we talked and we got to be friends. It was probably '64,
because when the riot came I was into collecting this
MASON: That was Noah Purifoy's influence, then?
RIDDLE: Yeah. Well, I mean, he was an assemblage person.
I liked assemblage, too, but I was getting ready to like
it more than I had ever liked it. Because when the riots
came, all these burned-out buildings were there. There
were charred remains and this and that. What was really
weird was I met some black artists poking through the
ruins. And I was in there with my little box, poking
through the ruins just like they did. That cash register
was like-- I found a burned-out cash register.
MASON: This is called The Ghetto Merchant.
RIDDLE: The idea was to take a cash register and
dismantle it with screwdrivers and stuff till I got to the
part where the part I liked was left. And I just put some
legs on it and called it The Ghetto Merchant.
MASON: Where did you get the--? Is all of this part of
the cash register that you dismantled? Or--?
RIDDLE: No, it's junk. Now, see those others? Like that
thing up at the top?
RIDDLE: I was telling you about when I went off on a
divergence about the Toyotas and the Datsuns and the
little bent-up metal-- I used to love to walk up the
railroad tracks, and I used to play this game. I'd take a
box--I had this box that had a handle on it so I could
carry it--and I'd walk as far as I could walk up the
railroad tracks, picking up only those things that caught
my eye. Because you saw a whole myriad of things, but you
got to the point where your eye would see the thing you
wanted out of forty things. Because you do it every day.
You don't know what you're going to use it for in art, but
you're walking and you pick up that. You could only walk
as far as you knew you could carry that box back when it
was too full and too heavy to carry. Now, if it took you
longer to find interesting things, you walked further.
Just grabbing up everything you saw, you couldn't walk as
far because the box got heavy, and then you'd have to walk
back to your car and throw the box in the car. So every
day on the weekend I would do that, you know.
I used to go down alleys, industrial alleys, anywhere
where I thought I might see something. Then I got to a
place where, if my instincts told me to turn here, I'd go.
I'd find things like the legs on that Street Trial. I
found this place that did castings. And here, that man's
legs were dripping from the foundries. I guess they
dumped the drippings, and somebody picked them up.
I used to love to go to places that did fabricating.
They had these big metal things [and] the trash truck
would come and pick up the whole thing. I don't know if
you've ever seen one. They have these long things--
They're made so that a truck can come and scoop them up,
and it turns into part of the truck. They just haul the
whole thing away. But people who do metal fabricating,
they throw [out] all of their punch parts, bent parts,
things like this thing. They throw out things like that
that they've actually fabricated something out of. But I
like them because the cut outs were clean, made by great
big break machines where it would just punch a hole right
through a piece of metal a quarter inch thick. So you get
a nice clean hole rather than if you had to try to cut it
out yourself with a torch. It would be ragged, and you'd
have to file it. So you got minimalism with minimal
effort. So I liked them for that.
MASON: Where did the legs come from?
RIDDLE: Oh, with some other junk I have. I used to have
a junk pile in my backyard. In fact, when I left L.A., it
took my pickup truck about five, six trips to the junkyard
to resell this metal. And I was getting like eighty,
ninety dollars a trip.
^4AS0N : Wow !
RIDDLE: So I ' d take my truck-- They'd always weigh your
truck with the junk on it. You unload the junk, then you
put your truck back on the scale. They weigh it again,
and they owe you the difference.
RIDDLE: So I was like making these trips and my truck was
barely touching the ground in the front, it was so loaded
down. But I had like these piles of resource material
that-- Sometimes I would remember right away, "I've got
some things that would go perfect here, " and I could pull
them right out. And I had some stuff that if I just went
through the junk I'd find, "Ooh, this is nice." You know,
MASON: So if you left it outside it must have gotten
rained on, as much as it rains in L.A.
MASON: And probably the texture changed sometimes.
RIDDLE: Well, I used to--
MASON: Because I noticed these are all polished up.
RIDDLE: I used to try to shine the things up.
RIDDLE: That was part of it, too. But I tried to get rid
of the rust. And then I would put polyurethane or
something on. Wirebrush the stuff. I even got to the
place where I found a guy who sandblasted, and I had him
sandblast some things.
MASON: So that was an important part of the whole
aesthetic of the piece? The shine and the--?
RIDDLE: Yeah. And the natural patina of the metal. So
you've got a contrast between highly polished-- Because at
the same time I was starting to see-- I saw David Smith,
the minimalist sculptor. I didn't like his work, and then
I saw a piece in front of a museum one night. It was in
1972, it was an art and technology show, and they had a
David Smith out front. I was just going into the museum,
and I saw the way he burnished those surfaces with his
grinder. It was like it was five, six surfaces. And I'd
always tried to get that effect of multi-levels of
transparency as a painter, and here this guy was doing it
on the surface of this metal. So I just freaked out.
Then I started really looking at his stuff more closely.
Then I started seeing the fact that one of the things
about minimalism was that you could create the illusion of
mass with his forms. They looked heavy and strong, but
yet they were hollow. You had the illusion of mass
without the weight of mass. So I started liking that kind
of idea, too. He was a major influence on me. I mean,
he's somebody I still like. But-- I don't know where I am
MASON: I guess the other guestion I had was, did they
teach welded sculpture at school? Or was that something
that you had learned--?
RIDDLE: Not to me. No, because like, see, I went to
night school. They never had sculpture classes at night.
When I went back for my master's, I would have gotten a
degree in sculpture, except they didn't teach it except in
the daytime. So I've never had a class in sculpture.
MASON: It was just interesting. I was reading about--
When you read things about Mel[vin E.] Edwards and Ed
Love, you know, they always say that they were attracted
to welded sculpture. And I think Ed Love said something
about seeing a piece of P'lla Mills in the Golden State
[Mutual Life Insurance Company] collection.
RIDDLE: The same thing I saw.
RIDDLE: Same one. You've got a picture here. I know
it's the same one. It's the same one as--
MASON: Oh, yeah. The Star of Bethlehem. This was a page
that talks about the--
RIDDLE: That was the P'lla Mills in the-- That was it,
RIDDLE: We used to love that. That was when I started
liking sculpture, was in those days. This is the kind of
metal that I used to go get with [William E.] Pajaud.
MASON: This is Control Force.
RIDDLE: I remember the day I found that. There was a
great big gear ring in the junkyard, and I was with Pajaud
that day. I used to like things like alarm bells and--
That was some kind of bird. I don't know what kind of
bird that was, but it definitely is a bird with wings.
And what is it called?
MASON: It's called Control Force. There's no date on
RIDDLE: No, I would have never called it that. I don't
know where that came from.
MASON: Oh, okay. Well, this is from the International
Review fof African American Art] .
RIDDLE: People put titles on your stuff.
RIDDLE: If I did that, it was probably "Bird of Prey" or
something, because I think that was an eagle, and it was
like a bird of prey. But he had some kind of owl kind of
bird, because they're birds of prey. But it was an
Oalarmist kind of thing. Yeah, like how they always catch
those-- Like they always have those birds of prey with
snakes and things and lizards that they've caught when
they fly back up on their perch. So I was probably
dealing with that, because I see on there the fact that I
used alarm bells.
I used to love to find electric boxes, you know, that
had fuses and things that were-- So that you could see
that it was some kind of an electronically related thing.
Schematic designs and things like that, because they
always reminded me of technology.
MASON: How was technology important? Because I noticed
most of the-- When you're talking about a lot of the junk
for-- You know, getting junk out of intersections, you
talked a lot about finding car parts and things like that.
You know, why were car parts more attractive--? Well, you
talked about that whole Japan thing.
RIDDLE: Well, because they were really good suppliers. I
mean, all the junk in the intersection is car related.
Because the cars had wrecks, the car tires swept the junk
into the middle. You know, that was just how it
accumulated, by cars going this way and this way and this
way and this way. [tape recorder off]
MASON: I was just asking about your interest in car
parts, your attraction to car parts and technology.
RIDDLE: Yeah, I was just saying that in the
intersections, they were like the producers of the debris.
But my real interest was in junkyards and scrap piles,
because I was interested in welding. Now, Noah, his real
interest was in--just to use him as an example-- He did
his gathering from secondhand stores. Now, he would go
into a secondhand store--I used to go with him sometimes--
he would go in there and he'd say, "How much for this pair
of shoes?" And they'd say, "Those are two dollars, sir."
And he'd say, "What if I buy all fifty pairs?" And she'd
say, "I'll sell that to you for twenty-five dollars."
He'd give her twenty- five dollars, pull out two big
gunnysacks, throw all the shoes in the gunnysack, take
them home and do a piece about shoes. He'd have all these
shoes lined up, [and] that would be his piece of art. The
same way that Wayne Thiebaud would paint slices of pie in
the bakery shop showcase. So now that's where he got his,
but I loved the metal yard.
I like the secondhand, like the flea market in
Pasadena. You go out there, and these people are trying
to sell memorabilia and things. But there's so much art
stuff out there. If you go out there just thinking you're
going to make some art, and you're not trying to get some
collectibles, but something that strikes you-- And it's
that same energy that ' s in the walking down the railroad
tracks, playing "I'm only going to pick up that which
catches my eye." And anything that doesn't really catch
my eye, I'm not even going to give it a second thought.
You get that same mentality, and you get accustomed.
Because the human mind, once it adapts to a certain
procedure, it can become-- The more it does it, the more
sophisticated and the more it separates itself from other
human beings who don't do that. And then they say, "Well,
that's easy." It may be easy what they see, and it may be
easy the way they see you do it. But they may not know
that you put ten years of practice and development into
cultivating the ability to do this thing. Which isn't
speaking about me: that's about anything that you do
repetitiously and long enough. You become proficient at
So like my favorite was to just do-- Like David
Hammons and another friend of mine, we developed this
theory that if you see something you want out by the curb
for the trashman, if you stop and you get it, then it's
yours. But if you drive off and you say, "Gosh, I should
have gotten that. Dog, I should have gotten that!" and
you go back, it's never there. It's never there. The
only time it can still be there is if you get down to the
corner and turn around and go right back. But if you go
on about where you were going when you saw it and then
come back later, forget it. I mean I've got a whole
collection of mental imagery of things that I should have
gotten that I didn't. Michael Jackson one time. A life-
size Michael Jackson sticking out of somebody's trash with
the glove and one of those Michael Jackson poses and his
Geri-curled hair and all that. And I said, "Oh, man." I
drove on down the street. And all the way driving down I
said, "Dog, I could make a bad piece of art out of that.
I don't know what piece it is yet, but I know I could use
it." By the time I went back and got it, all that trash
was still there, but Michael Jackson was gone. Somebody
else said, "Ooh, Michael Jackson, " and put it in their
record room .
MASON: So when you see--?
RIDDLE: Anything that really catches your eye.
MASON: So you don't know what piece you're going to make.
Or is the piece suggested by the thing that you find? Or
how does that process work?
RIDDLE: Oh, yeah. I mean, a lot of times it's like-- My
titles always precede my art. I always have a name of a
piece before the piece ever comes . I may change the name
of the piece after I get into it and make it a little more
explanatory, but I always have a--
I remember one time I found a box, and next to it
there was an old wooden door that somebody put out. It
said "employees only" on it. You know, they always have
that. Somebody had stenciled it on there. And I saved
that part that said "employees only." I had that thing in
my basement here in this house for a long time. And then
one day I was thinking about the United States and Central
and Latin America and South America, too, because I
thought about Salvador Allende and [Augusto] Pinochet in
Chile and how [Henry] Kissinger, [Richard M. ] Nixon, etc.,
all got rid of Salvador Allende in '72 because Chile was
the leading producer of copper. This was before fiber
optics and the microchips were really booming and
everything. They were still using copper wire. And AT&T
[American Telephone and Telegraph Company] and ITT
[International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation], if
you think about them, they were all copper wire. I mean,
that's what their foundation was, copper wire. They
didn't want what they considered to be a Marxist--even
though he was elected in a democratic election--to be in
charge of copper any more than they wanted Saddam Hussein
to be in charge of the oil. Even though the British
partition-- Iraq had made Kuwait at the turn of the
century so that they could steal that oil out of there
which wasn't theirs in the first place. But it's always
the same thing .
So they got rid of Allende. And then I started
thinking about [how] they got rid of Omar Torrijos in
Panama. [James E.] Carter had just gotten with Torrijos
and made a contract to cede the Panama Canal back to the
Panamanian people, and all these Reagan kind of people
going out of their damn minds, and right after that, now,
Torrijos was in a helicopter crash. All of a sudden, who
took his place? Manuel Noriega, you know, who we loved
right up until the time that we needed a scapegoat. So
then we dumped him off because he wouldn't help us with
the Contra training so that we could get rid of Daniel
Ortega. So I saw all of this piece as evolving out of
this "employees only." Who did they kill? They killed
Maurice Bishop, they killed Torrijos, and they killed
Allende, even though they had surrogates to do it. Still,
they got rid of him. Then the only three that were still
bothering them, really, that they didn't get to
kill--although they intended to kill Noriega, it just
happened that they didn't get him- -Noriega, [Fidel]
Castro, and Ortega.
I loved to look through American Rifle Association and
hunting magazines, because they always show "Get this
bullet!" And they show these bullets that can kill with
the greatest killing power that you can get on a rifle.
They show these mushroom bullet heads that are all
flattened out and say, "Compare this with this. This is
what you want." I always cut those pictures out. And so I
collaged bullets that are spent and used in these ads. And
I put one next to Allende, Bishop, and Omar Torrijos. But,
yet, I have nice clean unused bullets next to Noriega,
Castro, and Ortega, because they haven't knocked them off
yet. I like to make those kinds of plays on things.
But when I got that door that said "employees only, "
I had no idea that the employees would be Pinochet-- I had
this really nice picture of Pinochet and the generals all
standing at attention. I collaged that in a very
painterly way over the part of the door that says
"employees only. " And then I show, on the outside edge, a
separation of about six inches of the non-employees to be
assassinated, because they don't fit in with what we want
South America, Central America to be.
MASON: That's in the William Grant Still [Community Arts
Cemter] show that's up now.
RIDDLE: Yeah. That's--
MASON: What date was that? That was in '70 something.
RIDDLE: My piece has evolved. I mean, I've been working
on it ever since I thought of it. It probably took me
about two years, but I didn't paint on it every day. I
might see an article in the newspaper or something and
say, "Ooh, this fits." And then I'd go back and work on
it. But I like to let them evolve because-- I mean, the
reason is I had no idea that that would become what it
MASON: Well, I was thinking that since you've done so
many things, even though it's really artificial to divide
everything up, maybe we could just talk about-- Since
we're talking about sculpture, maybe we could just talk
about sculpture and then assemblage and then ceramics and
then painting, even though it's kind of all mixed up
RIDDLE: Well, I don't mind. It would probably help you.
MASON: Yeah, it would help me. [laughter] That's what
I'm saying, it would actually help me.
RIDDLE: You set it up like you want it. I don't have any
problem with that.
MASON: Okay. Because otherwise I'll just forget or--
Because we were talking about assemblage. We haven't
talked about your Made in Mississippi series and how that
came about yet. I wanted to ask you--
RIDDLE: That was a funny thing.
MASON: What was one of the first pieces of assemblage
that you saw? Was it the Watts Towers? Or was it
another--? I guess I'm wondering what gave you the
RIDDLE: I was still painting when I saw Watts Towers.
MASON: So I was just wondering, what was the impetus for
feeling that junk could be art?
RIDDLE: Well, back to-- Like I said, I saw how Noah did
it, and then I saw-- I was attracted to it because, again,
it came out of that prior ceramic experience of the
manipulation of real things rather than trying to draw the
real thing. Because I know in drawing, if it's not quite
right, you've got to erase it. But if it's not quite
right in metal, say it's stiff metal, you can heat it and
bend it until it's right. The Tightness of it comes from
as you bend it; you see maybe it crosses over another form
that's either in front of it or behind it. And all of a
sudden you see a nice connection between the two. So that
in the--we're talking about assemblage now--additive form
of sculpture rather than the-- Well, it could be
subtractive, too. But a good example was I did a piece of
It was supposed to be a man who had been down. So I
let myself lay on the floor and I studied the way that you
would normally get up if you were flat on your back, but
now you're coming up. You would have one elbow up,
pushing yourself up; your legs would be a certain way. So
once I got that, I made a wax model of Malcolm. I was
almost through with it, and I went to the flea market. My
son [Anthony Thomas Riddle] was going to look for comics
and I was looking around. He was looking for comics; I'm
looking for what I want to look for. And I saw a
blowtorch, an old-fashioned painter's blowtorch that they
used to use to heat up paint. That was before they had
chemical paint remover. They would heat paint with this
blowtorch, and then they would take a putty knife when the
paint started blistering, but before it could catch on
fire, and they would scrape it off. That was one of the
ways-- They probably still do multilayer, but now they've
got chemicals [where] it would come right off easier.
It's a piece of art itself, the blowtorch. But I
noticed when I put it under Malcolm-- See, Malcolm's hand
had been-- I didn't want to do a real hand with fingers.
So, I mean, I made it like a hand-- I made this part of
the hand, actually. I had Malcolm's hand coming up, and
it was turned this way. And I noticed, one day, I had
this blowtorch and I just stuck it up under there to say,
"Suppose Malcolm was coming up off the ground with a
blowtorch in his hand. That would make an extra serious
piece. I mean, Malcolm's been down, but know he's coming
up to put some heat." So I really liked that idea. But,
now, the unexpected came when I got behind the hand and
the knob on the blowtorch is like--it's got little notches
in it all the way around so the guy could turn up the fuel
and increase the flame. But it's just like in the Adinkra
symbol book that shows a symbol that has eight notches in
it, and it's the star which is the son of God. You know?
So I saw that. But also, with his hand going like that,
it's like the star and crescent. And all of a sudden, I
saw all of these Muslim connotations just because, now,
there's a blowtorch in Malcolm's hand, where that was
never the intention when I made Malcolm's hand.
So I see a lot of times in the development of a
piece, if you let the piece develop for a while, and then
when you don't see [anything] [John] Coltrane like about
it-- Or you don't see spontaneity, where you're contriving
parts instead of the parts just spontaneously-- Like when
Coltrane and them would be playing some jazz, you know.
All of this skill is there, but the show, like an art
show, is when they're playing extemporaneously, and an
accumulation of all their skill, all their ideas, their
playing right at the ultimate minute of how they're
thinking-- If it wasn't for a recording, a lot of times
they might not be able to replay that. They might be able
to transcribe it and replay it here. But if they don't
have that, the only evolution on the piece is coming out
as they play the changes and the things that they achieve.
They say, "Yeah, I've been trying to get to that."
The same thing happens in sculpture. I mean, it
happens in painting, too. But that's why I liked-- In
sculpture, you're dealing with real objects, and you have
the ability, in this case, to mix recognizable, discarded
junk with lines and images that you've created. So that
pretty soon this three-dimensional collage of parts or
assemblage becomes like [Louise] Nevelson's pieces: if
you take it out of context, it's a whole bunch of
banisters and wood turnings and different cut outs and
things. But if you take it all and put it all in a form
and paint it all one color, then it become one thing with
a whole bunch of very interesting subparts contained
within the boundary of this one thing. So I like
sculpture from that standpoint. And I love things in the
streets still that get run over and smashed, because
they've acquired their shape as art parts accidentally.
Nobody sat there with a hammer.
There was a piece in the Grant Still show that I
still-- This is a still assemblage. I wanted to tear open
some bags, because I found all of these wonderful bags
with Statues of Liberty printed on them. I wanted to tear
one open to show Nixon had been busted. But [when] I
tried to tear a bag, I was caught up in this "How do you
tear it?" because it's a conceived thing, the pressure.
And I didn't want that. So one day I took it to work and
I got a plastic bag, filled it up with water, put the
plastic bag inside the paper bag, went up on the upper
level above where we parked this morning, and threw it off
the upper level. And it hit the ground. The bag tore and
splattered in every which direction. And I ran
downstairs, and it was the most amazing thing. The part
of the bag that had the Statue of Liberty didn't get one
tear on it. The rest of the bag just was torn to shreds.
And I took it like I used to see my mother do with Ivory
Snow. I used to have Ivory flakes or something you used
to put on fine sweaters, like wool sweaters and stuff,
because you had to wash them by hand. Then you would put
newspaper out and you'd block the sweaters out. You laid
them out so that they were just like they were. And then,
that way, when they dry, they wouldn't be all distorted.
MASON: Yeah, they would keep their shape.
RIDDLE: Yeah. So I did that paper bag the same way. I
ran home from work with the paper bag. It was still wet.
I went down to the basement and laid it out, made sure it
was just like it tore. And then I was able to create the
piece Nixon: the 20th Anniversary, Busted. Because he got
busted just like that paper bag, just like brothers get
busted. But, I mean, it was like that accidental thing.
I like that in sculpture.
The sculpture and assemblage parts that are in my
head now, I would like to create certain parts out of wax
and cast them. My plan is to cast them in my backyard,
somewhere along the creek so that I have some nice
setting, and I'll be out there. You know. But the idea
of making parts or casting real things, which is easy to
do in casting-- But being able to create the exact parts
you want and mix them with things that you find and weld
them together to create the object that you're trying to
express yourself with-- See, I mean, to me, that's like
the ultimate: to be able to deliberately create
something, but combine it with something that you had no
hand in developing its shape. You only have a hand in
making it part of this other thing, to become a whole
That's why I like sculpture, though; it's because —
The other thing I think about sculpture is that the first
time that you make something that you can stand on, that
you can actually make something and then stand on it,
that's amazing, because it changes your whole view.
Because if you're five feet tall, everything you see is
basically from the five-foot level. But if you make
something that makes you five foot seven, you actually
have a different perspective on everything, because you're
seeing it from a different viewpoint. I used to always
think [about] that, plus something that could fall on you
and break your arm or kill you- -that you made.
MASON: Like the Richard Serra Tilted Arc kind of thing.
RIDDLE: Yeah. Well, I mean, definitely if one of his
pieces fell on you, you'd die. Or you'd be hurt when one
of those big old poles flying over hit you.
^4AS0N: Why was that danger an important element in your
work? Or potential for danger?
RIDDLE: Not so much that, but the fact that you made
something that now you have to wear a hard hat to be
around. I thought that was nice. I mean, just that idea
that something that you made was big enough to kill you.
You know, it's just like when Christo did those pieces,
and the umbrella flew off. And I mean, it's sad the
woman got killed, but--you know--it's the size of the
umbrellas and the ability of those umbrellas to pick up
currents of wind. Obviously, he probably didn't
anticipate that one would ever kill anybody. But just
that idea that the pieces assume a kind of life of their
own physically, aside from what they look like. But
that's what sculpture has that painting doesn't have,
because painting is all-- Painting is more like an
illusion. You can create depth, you can create photo-
realism, you can create excitement with color, but it's
much more of an abstract thing. And it's all what you
can do through your hand, through this inanimate object,
the brush, back to the bristles which you are actually
putting paint on. Sculpture is just you get more dirty,
it's more physical work, and that's nice to be--the
physical thing. You're wrestling with things. You've
got to see "Can I make something big enough to--? I've
got to get a chain hoist in my studio so I can go--
Because it's too heavy to hold in place."
I remember one thing about sculpture, too, that--
this is in the era of table model sculpture, which could
hardly fall on you or anything--you needed three hands.
You needed a hand to hold the torch, a hand to hold the
rod, and a hand to hold the object that was being welded.
I hated clamp-on tools; they were like illegal. So I
discovered balance for myself. I mean, I went through a
year where I used to think, "If the piece I want to attach
can stay right where I want it, because it's balanced--" A
little part is over here, and a little more is over here.
If it can stay-- Sometimes I'd spend a half hour, and just
when I got ready to weld, a piece would fall off. If I
could let it stay in place long enough for me to weld,
then I felt like, physically, because of balance, that's
where the piece went. So that became like a law for a
long time, that I would practice that.
MASON: Well, in the earlier-- This one doesn't have a
pedestal. Street Trial. But others do have a pedestal for
some-- Was that a decision: pedestal or not pedestal?
RIDDLE: Only in that it was easier to make things stand
RIDDLE: Whereas, like, I could see now, where the three
points on the plane would be-- [tape recorder off]
I'd like to get to the place where I did
architectural sculpture. I gave up printmaking because
it's not healthy. Because you use too much petroleum
salts, so I didn't want to-- Now, that kind of way isn't
dangerous as much as it could be foolhardy. If you know
the chemicals are carcinogenic or that they can be liver
damaging and different things, you know, nerve damaging- -
I mean, it says that on all the warning labels. Why keep
doing it? So I mean, if I die, I don't want to die
because the chemicals killed me. If I had to go art-wise,
I'd definitely want it to be an accident. "Yeah, he died
while he was doing his art." You know, I'd rather have
that than, "Yeah, he knew he was going to die, but he kept
doing it anyway." That seems somewhat stupid. But
anyway, I switched to painting.
MASON: Well, I wanted to--
RIDDLE: I'm sorry.
MASON: Before we talk about that, I wanted to talk about
how the Made in Mississippi came about.
RIDDLE: Yeah. That's what I'm trying to get to now.
MASON: Oh, okay.
RIDDLE: But that's cool. That was the reason I said I
switched to painting. But, as I'm painting right now, I'm
beginning to put physical forms in the painting. Like I'm
actually beginning to attach things, because that's a
prelude to sculpture, which those boxes were. I had said
earlier I wanted to get a sculptural degree, but I couldn't
get one. And so the man at Cal[ifornia] State [University,
Los Angeles] said he gave me the option in graduate school
to-- As a painter, I could do assemblage, and I couldn't
actually do sculpture. So in my junking forays- -
I remember one day John Outterbridge and I were out
junking around- -that ' s not the word we used to use either.
But I was out there somewhere, and Bridge knew where this
junkyard was. In fact, those pieces in that one, the Hoe,
because it's a hoe and some stove legs-- I was at one of
Bridge's junkyards when I found those parts. We were
someplace looking for junk, and this guy had ammunition
boxes. They used to hold mortar shells, circa the Korean
War. The guy had a big stack of them, I said, "Hey, how
much for one of them?" And he told me. I said, "How much
for twelve of them?" And he gave a real --like two dollars
a piece or something. So I bought twelve of them. And
they sat around in my basement, in my backyard, in my
studio for a long time.
One day I started thinking about them, because I had
to do a master's thesis. And the guy said, "You could
either do a written thesis, or you could do a visual
presentation, " but you had to write a paper. So I wrote
this paper called "Spirit vs. Technology," and my premise
was that technology was a corpse unless it was imbued by
spirit. I used the analogy further that you could take a
car, which was a technical process, and you could let it
sit in your driveway and nobody would drive it, nobody
would touch it, and it would slowly deteriorate. If it
sat there long enough, it would deteriorate, even if it
had been brand-new, to the point where it was inoperable.
It took the spirituality of a person getting in there,
turning on the ignition, starting up the car, doing all
the processes that are involved in driving. So technology
without spirit couldn't function. And then also, from the
other angle, that famous line in George Jackson's
"Technology was a headless beast at the controls of a
machine gone mad, " talking about American ideas and
things. So to me, I was trying to show spirit and
I think that first piece that I tried to use was
Bird and Diz. It was right there. I was showing that
Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie-- I had found some old
horns and some pressure gauges and things. I remember
going to a secondhand store and buying a beautiful piece
of dark blue pinstripe suit and cutting that up in there
and putting that as a liner in the bottom of the box and
then showing that Dizzy Gillespie and Bird [Charlie
Parker] were a good [example] of how the technical
process, that created those instruments primarily for
classical music, had no idea in the creator's mind that
Bird was going to pick up the horn and play it like he
did. Or that Dizzy Gillespie-- Or that Bird and Diz and
Thelonius Monk and them would all come together and make
be-bop. That's what spirit does to technology. Spirit
can take technology on an evolution that the technology ' s
creator never intended it to go. So then I took the--
I ' m sorry .
MASON: Did you work on the surface of the boxes at all?
RIDDLE: Uh-huh. Like I said, I lined the inside of the
musical side with a kind of suit material that the
brothers used to wear on those sets back in the old be-bop
era when the musicians were well-dressed and everything.
Then I took the front surface of the door--
I had an artist friend named Danny [Daniel] LaRue
Johnson. I remember when Danny and I were first starting
to deal with art in L.A. I was over to Danny's house one
time. I was sitting there talking, and he was rubbing on
this box, on a piece of wood, a Joseph Cornell kind of
assemblage. He used to do a lot of rat traps and paint
American flags black and have black dolls caught in the
rat traps. But he'd paint them all black, like Louise
Nevelson, to combine all the different fragmented parts
into the commonality of being one color. So that made
them one, even though they were separate. I always liked
how-- But he was rubbing on this box, and I said, "Man,
why do you spend so much time rubbing and polishing?" He
said, "Some people call it the finish fetish, " and he
started laughing. He said, "But, you know, I do it
because not only is it peaceful, it--as an artist--gives
me time to think and relaxes me." He said, "But it's
craftsmanship. " And he said, "No matter what a piece
looks like or what it is, if it has craftsmanship as an
integral part of it, it will always be presentable just on
a craftsmanship level."
Now, once you draw people into the craftsmanship,
then you rip them apart with the concept within the
craftsmanship. You see, craftsmanship has the ability to
draw people to itself, just because it's a thing of such
quality that everybody recognizes it. Well, not
everybody, but enough people. You know, they'll say,
"Well, that's--" And they'll touch it, and then all of a
sudden, they'll look around the edge of this smooth
surface and here's something that's as sharp as a razor
blade trying to cut their- -
TAPE NUMBER: II, SIDE TWO
SEPTEMBER 5, 1992
RIDDLE: That's the only piece in that whole series where
the parts extended outside of the box, too. I mean, I did
that on purpose, because I wanted to show that the
brothers' technology was breaking out of the boxes.
Now, I used anununition boxes for two reasons,
because-- They had those rope handles so they could hang.
All I had to do was take a two-by-four and mount each one
on a two-by-four and I could exhibit them like that with
the doors closed so that the viewer had to unlatch it--
it ' s just a simple latch on the front--but they had to
unlatch those two hinges and open up the art to see what
was happening in there. So I kind of liked that, because
it made people have to do a participatory thing.
So it was really my master's thesis, and that was
nice. It was a self-contained kind of storage thing, too.
You'd close the lid, put the little latches on, and stack
them up, because they were meant to be stacked up on top
of each other. Therefore, they wouldn't take up much
space; the lids kept dust and dirt out of them. They sat
over at Bridge's house from the time I left Atlanta to the
time the California [African American] Museum bought them.
So they probably sat in Bridge's house-- They bought them
in '89, I left in '74, so they sat at Bridge's house for
about fifteen years, you know.
MASON: Were they all meant to be seen together?
MASON: I remember I saw this show and I think there was
one they put at the end that was closed and you couldn ' t
open the door.
RIDDLE: I did that on purpose because I was tired of
doing them boxes. I promised them I would have ten for
the show, or nine for the show, and so I did one you
couldn't open. There ain't nothing in that one. You
know, like just humor. Humor and laziness. But I did
that on purpose, because everybody said, "What's in that
one?" I used to say, "You'll never know." [laughter]
MASON: You are very mysterious.
RIDDLE: That's assemblage, too, that Charlie Parker. I
like the bebop era. So this piece has all assembled parts
on the bottom. I put little boxes on the bottom that
showed African instruments to show that their heritage is
basically African instruments. But the rest of it's two-
RIDDLE: There might be some balsa wood thickness pieces
in there like there's an African person over here
somewhere that grew out of his bass fiddle. It's hard to
see in that, but I always liked that. That's a real
picture that had Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and
John Coltrane when he was a real young musician. He was
in the background just asking could he sit in. And I
always liked that because it has historical significance.
MASON: And here's an Olmec. Maybe it's an Olmec head- I
don ' t know .
RIDDLE: Yeah, it's an Olmec. I like to try to show-- And
then, again, there was Liberty.
MASON: Yeah, the Statue of Liberty.
RIDDLE: I was using Liberty in that case to say that--
[tape recorder off] [Carmen Riddle joins interview]
MASON: We started off with Bill Pajaud. We wanted to get
some of the older people in the arts community. We talked
with Ruth Waddy, Betye Saar. And then we started to talk
to people who were younger, but who had had galleries,
like Alonzo Davis. And I just did Suzanne Jackson a
couple of weeks ago.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Where is Suzanne?
MASON: She's up in San Francisco. She just got her
degree from Yale. She just got an MFA [master of fine
arts], and she's working in costume design right now.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh, that's what she's doing?
MASON: Yeah. I mean she's still painting, but she's
earning her living now as a costume designer in between.
Well, she says she hasn't really wanted to show yet, but I
don ' t know .
CARMEN RIDDLE: She was doing those chickens when we saw
her last time.
MASON: She's just trying to make money to get supplies.
RIDDLE: You know, before when you were asking about the
different family stuff-- She has a whole family story that
fits in very well with me. That's why--
CARMEN RIDDLE: What's that?
RIDDLE: Well, I told her about how the first house I ever
lived in was your grandmother's, Alice Garrott's.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah. Well, our families knew each other
RIDDLE: And her family was one of the first black
families in Glendale.
CARMEN RIDDLE: No, California.
RIDDLE: Yeah, but I mean when they lived out in Glendale.
MASON: When did they come to California?
CARMEN RIDDLE: Well, my grandfather was the first black
dentist. And they came to California before slavery was
MASON: So he was before [John A.] Somerville then?
CARMEN RIDDLE: Somerville and my grandfather. Yeah, he
said that was wrong. [laughter] So it wasn't--
MASON: Yeah, it's always wrong.
CARMEN RIDDLE: No, it was wrong.
MASON: It's always wrong.
CARMEN RIDDLE: It is wrong, because Dr. Garrott-- That's
just something that's happened in the last few years that
they've said Somerville. But Dr. Garrott was the first
one, and then Somerville.
MASON: Of course, he wrote his autobiography [Man of
Color: An Autobiography of J. Alexander Somerville] , too.
So he'd probably say, "Well, you know, I was the first."
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah, there's an argument there. But
anyway, they were there in the 1800s and everything like
that. But our families were connected the whole time.
RIDDLE: We used to live close to each other. Her mother
and father lived right almost next door to my mother
[Helen Louise Wheeler] and father [John Thomas Riddle] 's
two best friends. Ruby and Ollie Terry. And, yet, we
didn't know each other.
CARMEN RIDDLE: And, you know, the thing that they had at
the black museum-- You know, the California history thing?
MASON: Yeah, yeah.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Well, our families are in there. Yeah,
from that-- We went to that show the last time we were
there. And so it was really interesting seeing that.
RIDDLE: She had parts of her family in it and parts of my
family. And yet, we didn't know each other.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Well, we did, but we didn't pay any
attention to each other. They used to have the
pharmaceutical doctors and lawyers breakfast in Griffith
Park every summer. They had a breakfast, and we always
went. We saw a picture after we got married where he was
at one end and I was at the other, and we didn't even know
that we were both there.
MASON: Yeah, that's pretty funny.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He didn't start art until after we were
RIDDLE: See, she's telling it. She knows it. See, she
actually saved me.
CARMEN RIDDLE: We won't go into all that. [laughter]
But he didn't do any art until we were married. And then
he did the same picture over and over again, on one piece
of canvas .
RIDDLE: I just kept painting it over.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Because he was in the air force- -
RIDDLE: And I threw it away.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He did the same piece over and over again,
but it was something that he seemed to like and be
interested in. So when he got out of the service, he went
to art school at Cal[ifornia] State [University, Los
Angeles] . But what I was going to ask is, now, who else
did you see? Because, see, there was a time when all of
them-- It was so much fun in California, because they had
this group of artists and families that we all did
everything together .
CARMEN RIDDLE: With Dan Concholar and Alonzo Davis.
MASON: Yeah, we interviewed Alonzo.
RIDDLE: And Bridge.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Dale [Davis] and Bridge and--
RIDDLE: And Yvonne Cole Meo.
CARMEN RIDDLE: And Betye Saar. And, of course, Ruth
Waddy was always in on every-- She helped get the people
together, too, along with Alonzo.
MASON: Yeah. At the same time, there was this other
group of artists.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Who was that?
MASON: You mentioned Daniel LaRue Johnson and people
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh, Danny Johnson was along that time, but
Danny was a very individual-type person. He wasn't a
joiner. He was a very good artist, but he was not very
sociable and he didn't want to be around other people. He
took his family and went to New York.
RIDDLE: He preceded Mel[vin] [Edwards] and them to New
CARMEN RIDDLE: Mel was a friend of Danny's. Now, I guess,
that was about his best friend. So they both went to New
RIDDLE: That was in '58.
MASON: And then he went to study in Paris.
RIDDLE: That was in '58, because he came by and said,
"Man, we ought to go to New York." And I thought about it,
but I was afraid.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Well, he--
MASON: But I-- Oh, I'm sorry.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Go ahead. Go ahead.
MASON: No, I was just going to talk about some of the
other artists who were in the black shows, like [Los
Angeles 1972: A] Panorama [of Black Artists] and then they
kind of went off on their own.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Who was that?
MASON: Like Fred [Frederick J.] Eversley and, let's see,
Marvin-- Marvin Harden wasn't in the--
RIDDLE: Fred was real white. Because he went out to the
white artists, because they were doing resin casts. He did
those beautiful resin-casted pieces. But he was hanging
out with the--
MASON: Plus he-- He really —
RIDDLE: He became an artist though. I mean, Fred became--
I'm not saying we weren't artists. But he became an
accepted artist in corporate America, because he had,
CARMEN RIDDLE: Commercially.
RIDDLE: Pieces in plazas and, I mean, before anybody was
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah. He was more into crafts, and he was
very commercial. He could make money off of-- Around
whites a lot, you know.
MASON: Do you want me to turn the tape off? Or--?
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh.
RIDDLE: No. Is it off or on?
MASON: It's on.
RIDDLE: Yeah. I tell you, you could edit this out. She
knows a lot of stuff.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh. Well, I don't know. I didn't know you
had the tape on.
RIDDLE: See, now she's going to clam up. She's not going
to tell you about what her mother is like.
CARMEN RIDDLE: She doesn't care about that!
RIDDLE: Yeah, well, she asked about all the parents and
MASON: Yeah, well —
RIDDLE: Like, her mother is, right now, she's ninety-six.
CARMEN RIDDLE: She's probably ninety-eight, but she puts
her age back.
RIDDLE: And she's blind, completely blind. And she lives
by herself, and she do what she did.
CARMEN RIDDLE: She knew everybody in California.
RIDDLE: She's got like--because probably her blindness,
too, but even before that-- She's the keeper of the
history. She can tell you about every family back in
certain eras and things and all the relationships between
this person and what happened to that kid, this kid. It's
amazing. I mean, she's like out of the tradition of the
old African tradition where the Creoles and the people kept
the oral history to pass it on. She has, outside of her
blindness — and now she says she's tired of living so long--
nothing wrong with her. I mean, she can bend down and get
things out of the lowest shelf on the cupboard and not have
to pull herself up on the countertop or anything. I mean,
she fell and broke a rib when we were out there last
Thanksgiving. She was healed in two weeks.
MASON : Wow .
RIDDLE: I mean, she's an amazing person. Her mother and
father's side is a whole history. But without that part a
lot of me is missing, because we've been together, like I
said, about forty years, that I've known her.
CARMEN RIDDLE: We met the first day at City College, LACC
[Los Angeles City College], and we've been together ever
MASON: Yeah. Well, that's amazing, because it's like most
of the artists I talk to, and even non-artists-- You know,
Cecil Fergerson talks about being married three and four
times and stuff. I don't know how many times he's been
married, but, you know it seems to just--
CARMEN RIDDLE: I know, everybody.
MASON: It seems to just really destroy- -
CARMEN RIDDLE: They just didn't make it. You don't have
Dan Concholar on there?
MASON: We have kind of a--
CARMEN RIDDLE: He doesn't do art now, but he was a great
artist in his own way. But when his wife [Olivia
Concholar] left him, he was just so crushed--
RIDDLE: Never done art since.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He went to New York and hasn't done art
MASON: Suzanne Jackson ran into him in New York.
CARMEN RIDDLE: New York, yeah.
MASON: But I can't remember what she said.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He's in--
MASON: He has some administrative kind of job.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah, that's what he's doing.
RIDDLE: He promotes other artists.
MASON: Yeah, right.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah. But he was great. And he lived like
an artist. I mean, he and his wife just lived like
RIDDLE: They lived on Budlong [Avenue]. They used to
always live on Budlong.
CARMEN RIDDLE: They lived on Budlong, this old house, but
they were both from Arizona. She was Hispanic. But their
lives were so interesting. And then, David Hammons. I
don't know if you know David Hammons?
MASON: Yeah. We were going to interview him, but he's
living in Italy now.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah. David had a family in Los Angeles.
Now, he gave up his family. He had the nicest wife and two
little kids. They're grown now, but--
RIDDLE: Carmen, David, and Becky. Becky was his wife.
CARMEN RIDDLE: But he left his family in order to pursue
his art career. So I felt bad about that, because I just
don't think anything is worth that. But he has since gone
on to bigger and better things in the world of art. But,
you know, his kids kind of resent it.
RIDDLE: But now, one thing about-- Now David, he was a--
The thing good about David was he had a super sense of
MASON: Did you say sense of humor?
RIDDLE: Uh-huh. I mean, really, a great sense of humor,
to me. It was the same kind of sense of humor that I had
one similar to. So we always saw the humorous side of all
the things related to art, which gives you a whole other
MASON: Yeah. If you look at some of his pieces now-- I
remember seeing a piece of fried chicken.
CARMEN RIDDLE: And the funniest thing is he's-- I call him
a con artist, because at the museum he had a show here a
year or two ago and he had ribs hanging up there. And the
white people would come up, everybody had their champagne
and [were] dressed up and everything, and they would say,
"And, uh, how do you explain this?" He had been talking to
us, laughing at how much money he had made, and he doesn't
have to put out any money on these things because he just
picks up stuff. He never pays for his material. When he
did things with hair, he just went to the barbershops. And
when he did [inaudible] art when he was here, you know,
anything free. Then all his money just comes to him when
he gets paid for it.
So he said, "Oh, yeah. These people, you just tell
them anything." So the lady said, "Now, how did you happen
to think of this rib. Is this a rib? A barbecue rib?"
And what did he say? He said, "Well, yes. The way I feel
about this--" And he went into some long dissertation, and
she just thought it was great and brought her friends over.
And that's why I call him the con artist. Because he does
stuff like bottle caps and then makes it into something.
MASON: Yeah. There's one in here that's like a
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah. Yeah.
RIDDLE: He has ingenious ways of doing--
CARMEN RIDDLE: He never spends a cent. And I do admire
him for his money-making ways, because he makes plenty of
RIDDLE: He's got one in that book where he's just got
CARMEN RIDDLE: He just gathers up whatever he can free.
RIDDLE: Skillets in the Closet.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He never pays for a thing.
MASON: Yeah, there are the bottle caps.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah.
MASON: The basketball.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Uh-huh. And they didn't like it when he
did a piece of art-- What was it?
RIDDLE: The one that he did on Jesse [L,] Jackson.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Jesse Jackson.
MASON: Yeah. How Ya Like Me Now.
RIDDLE: They painted him white.
CARMEN RIDDLE: But he didn't mean that.
RIDDLE: They smashed him up with some sledgehammers.
CARMEN RIDDLE: And that must have really made him feel
RIDDLE: He felt bad at the time.
CARMEN RIDDLE: --because he likes to feel like he ' s a
black artist, and for blacks not to relate to it made him
feel really bad.
RIDDLE: But see, he was too abstract in that-- I mean,
for black people. Because one thing about black people,
we're not abstract. We would like everything, like, what
it is. We want it more simplified. I saw that in the
CARMEN RIDDLE: I want to see people and color and stuff.
MASON: Yeah, but when you say abstract, I mean, you know,
African art is really abstract. So--
CARMEN RIDDLE: I don't think so.
MASON: You don't think so?
CARMEN RIDDLE: No.
RIDDLE: No, I don't either. I think the African artists
now who do art, it's somewhat abstract. But I think when
it was in its original form--
CARMEN RIDDLE: Utilitarian.
RIDDLE: --when it was artifact-- Yeah, utilitarian.
Because it wasn't really viewed in the sense-- I mean, be
adding something that's not there-- It wasn't really
viewed for its aesthetic. I think if the aesthetic was
there, it was there because of the pride and the tradition
of carving, because they weren't looking at avant-garde
things, they were looking at keeping a tradition through
repetition. And the more you could keep the tradition,
the better you were. Whereas in the Western art, which
isn't artifact, it's like "Come up with this new thing and
get it patented." And everybody says, "Well, Alexander
Calder does kinetic art mobiles. Therefore, nobody else
can do mobiles." That's why you don't see the advancement
on his principle of balance and kineticism through
mobiles, because if you do, then everybody would say,
"Man, you're just copying Calder." So then what you might
really feel would contribute doesn't get a chance to
perpetuate what Calder did, and that's a sad thing, but
that's the way the West looks at it. It's got to be
something new and different. It's like new for new's
Now, David's piece you just showed me with the bottle
caps and the basketball, if you look at that from a
distance, that has qualities of African art about it, just
in the shape of the design.
MASON: The pattern.
RIDDLE: The patterns. I remember when David first — We
used to argue about that in the days Carmen speaks of.
Was there black art in the days of the penitentiary and
all of that? Was there black art at the riots? You know,
that was the big question. Is there black art or is it
just black people doing art? Or is there such a thing as
black art? And those arguments used to rage. And David
used to be in the position that there was no such thing as
black art. We used to get into almost cussing at each
other about those. It was all in Alonzo ' s Brockman
Gallery on Saturdays. The artists would meet. But it was
healthy, because you had to come back the next time they
met with visual proof of your position. You couldn't just
verbalize. And they could come back and show me some
black art. So we would get into that. The Wilbur Haynie.
Now, he was a great artist. I don't know what happened to
MASON: Yeah, I think he went--
RIDDLE: Wilbur was bad, boy.
MASON: Yeah, he did these hard-edged kinds of things.
RIDDLE: Yeah, maybe just a blue field with a red line
coming through, but a beautiful red. It wasn't just an
old jive red.
MASON: Was he part of Brockman Gallery or was he off on
RIDDLE: Uh, he was a little bit more off, but he came
through there. And Ernest--what was Ernest's name? — he
died. Ernest who did the dissertation on BAAism. It was
a classic one night.
MASON: On what?
RIDDLE: BAAism. He got up one night and he talked about
BAAism which was-- See everywhere at that time in the mid-
sixties, black groups like AFRI-COBRA and all these people
were jumping out. But there was always the Black Artists
of Baltimore, the Black Artists Association of New
Orleans, the Black Artists Association of L.A. So that
was BAA. It was always BAA, the Black Artists
Association. So Ernest did this thing, a dissertation on
BAAism, and he was putting down all the black artists
associations. Because this was this: "Was there black
art or was there just black artists?" I wish somebody had
taped it, because that was the funniest thing.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Who was that?
RIDDLE: This guy, I can't think of his name. Ernest
Herbert. He died. But he was a really good artist, an
abstract artist. And so he was against black art. He
just thought they were black artists and some of them did
black art and he taught the whole concept of these--all
over the country- -black groups and he called it BAAism.
He would start baying like a sheep at the end of each kind
of discourse, and he would go "BAAAAism." Well, we would
just-- That was a hilarious thing, boy. I still remember.
I don't even remember what he said now, but it was
hilarious at the time.
CARMEN RIDDLE: What's Alonzo doing?
MASON: He works at the San Antonio Art Institute.
RIDDLE: He's in San Antonio?
MASON: Yeah, he's on the faculty. He's like dean or
something of the college of fine arts.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Really?
MASON: Yeah. Or chairman, or something like that.
RIDDLE: That's where Claude Booker came from, San
CARMEN RIDDLE: There's a lot of Mexicans there.
MASON: Urn, yeah. I went around to the school. The
student body seemed kind of mixed. He had one student who
was Native American, another student who was Mexican, but
she was, like, you know, white Mexican. And some blacks.
It was really mixed.
CARMEN RIDDLE: It's an art school?
MASON: Yeah. Yeah, a fine arts school.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He always did find those administrative
RIDDLE: Mm-hmm. I met Alonzo the first time I ever
taught ceramics. I didn't know how to fire the kiln at
L.A. High [School], and they said, "Well, there's a guy
over there at Manual Arts [High School] who knows how."
So I went over there, and that's when I met Alonzo, He
was in there cussing his students out. When I walked in
the door he was calling them all kinds of names. And I
thought, "God, what kind of school is this?"
CARMEN RIDDLE: Those were great days, though. His
gallery had great turnouts, Brockman Gallery. Everybody
came to those shows.
RIDDLE: Mm-hmm. That was the place to be.
CARMEN RIDDLE: To either see the art or to be seen.
Because they had great outfits and they had-- He had
music, and it was really a lot of fun. A lot of fun.
MASON: Somebody said the difference between Suzanne
Jackson's Gallery 32 and the Brockman Gallery was that the
Brockman Gallery showed all the artists with MFA's, and
Suzanne Jackson's gallery showed everybody else. Because
she had like Emory Douglas. She showed-- Or is his name
Douglas Emory? I always get that mixed up. But the
RIDDLE: Well, she was more like-- Because she had poetry
reading and stuff, too.
CARMEN RIDDLE: She was more like an artist herself, too.
I mean, she wasn't--
RIDDLE: Well-- Yeah, I understand.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Alonzo was more administrative. Alonzo
did know art. He's an artist but, for the most part, he
did know good art. And Suzanne was a piece of art. She
had a marriage where they drove off on a motorcycle. They
had their marriage- -
RIDDLE: In that same place at--
CARMEN RIDDLE: Up there in Griffith Park.
RIDDLE: Up there where all the little ferns were--
CARMEN RIDDLE: And everybody came--
RIDDLE: Had a breakfast--
CARMEN RIDDLE: And they drove off on a--
RIDDLE: And they drove off on the back of Pete's
CARMEN RIDDLE: A motorcycle.
RIDDLE: She was in a bridal gown and the whole thing.
CARMEN RIDDLE: I didn't know he was married at the time.
RIDDLE: And he drove off, and her gown and her thing was
just flowing in the back.
CARMEN RIDDLE: She was really a character. Plus, she
went with Bernie [Bernard T.]--
CARMEN RIDDLE: --Casey for a long time. And she was just
really far out.
MASON: She actually had grown up in Alaska and San
CARMEN RIDDLE: She was, I guess, the ultimate of
RIDDLE: And then she had, like, poetry readings and other
kinds of, like you say. Panther kinds of things. She had
CARMEN RIDDLE: Happenings there.
RIDDLE: You know, social, avant-garde things that mixed
CARMEN RIDDLE: But see, Alonzo had a lot of the society
and art and bodies.
RIDDLE: He was right over there by where all the black
CARMEN RIDDLE: That's where Sidney Poitier came and
bought some of his art there. He had a lot of stars that
came to his.
RIDDLE: And other galleries were raiding Alonzo ' s
artists, like Ben[jamin] Horowitz and Ankrum Gallery and
those people wanted-- They would come to Alonzo ' s and try
to pick some of his artists off.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Black artists.
RIDDLE: But Alonzo and them, they did a lot.
CARMEN RIDDLE: It was great because they brought the
black artists together.
RIDDLE: And then David Hammons, he said one of the
funniest things. It's so true. But one night, like
Carmen said, everybody went, I mean, to be seen at
CARMEN RIDDLE: And then you'd have outfits, special
outfits just for Brockman Gallery.
RIDDLE: And I remember one time David said-- He wasn't
there. And everybody said, "Where's David? Where's
David? Where's David?" And everybody was in a panic
because they thought he had died or something, because
nobody missed an opening at Brockman' s. So I rushed home
"David! David, are you all right?"
He said, "Yeah. "
I said, "Man, how come you didn't come to the art
He said, "John," he said, "I knew--" He always talked
funny. He said, "John, I knew that I was the only black
artist in Los Angeles doing art because all the other
artists were at Brockman. And it felt so good to be the
only black artist in Los Angeles doing art." Because he
knew that at that exact hour, none of the other black
artists were doing art because they were all at
Brockman' s. So he stayed home and did art.
MASON: Well, I have a thing from you. You did your first
one-man show at Brockman Gallery, right? In '68?
CARMEN RIDDLE: That was the beginning of Brockman
[This portion of the text has been sealed.]
CARMEN RIDDLE: Well, I still think that was the beginning
of the black artist group that they were in.
RIDDLE: It was.
CARMEN RIDDLE: And that's the one that's the most well-
known on the whole coast, you know.
MASON: What about Art-West [Associated], though?
RIDDLE: Well, that was Fred Eversley.
CARMEN RIDDLE: That was just something that came out of
RIDDLE: Now, Fred Eversley was--
CARMEN RIDDLE: They wanted to have something else.
RIDDLE: You know who his brother is, is Ron Karenga.
MASON: Fred Eversley 's brother is Ron Karenga?
RIDDLE: Not Fred Eversley. What's his name? Fred-- What
was Ron Karenga ' s other name?
CARMEN RIDDLE: I don't know.
RIDDLE: See, Ruth Waddy started Art-West with this guy.
The guy who was in it, he was a gay. But this was like
when gay was--
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh, you mean that real tall gay one?
RIDDLE: When gay wasn't like gay is now. And he wore--
MASON: Was it William Smith?
CARMEN RIDDLE: He was effeminate.
RIDDLE: Wesley Gale. And he would come with horsetail
fly swishers. I mean, he was like--
CARMEN RIDDLE: He was really outlandish.
RIDDLE: "I'm Wesley Gale." I mean, he was outlandish.
But now, Ruth's group, Ron-- What was Ron [now Maulana]
Karenga ' s name before he was Ron Karenga? Because he used
to always be at Halver Milley's, at those parties arguing.
But he was a social worker. And his brother was an
artist, because he was in Art-West. And I remember
afterwards when I found out-- Because his brother was
real, kind of like-- There was a lot of feminine men
artists in Art-West, and his brother was one of them. And
I remember later when Ron Karenga became Ron Karenga, I
used to tease him about his brother, because Ron was out
there being all militant and everything.
MASON: He's very, very macho.
RIDDLE: But he went too far, because he was torturing
MASON: Yeah, I heard he's been arrested.
RIDDLE: We used to go to some of his things and the
people were saying, "Ron Karenga I Ron Karenga!" It was
like idolizing Ron Karenga rather than-- I mean, it
actually culminated in the war with the Panthers.
MASON: Yeah, "Bunchy" Carter- -
RIDDLE: In fact, two guys at UCLA, Bunchy Carter and
[John] Huggins, got killed out there on campus.
^4AS0N: Why was that? I mean, because--
RIDDLE: Because the FBI and them had infiltrated the--or
whatever part of the American government- -organizations.
And you know, it's like, "Man, they talking about your
momma over there," with us. And then they would tell the
Black Panthers, "Man, they say your momma was a dog."
"Man, what ' d you say about my momma?" And then all of
that black hostility spilled over in those killings, but--
MASON: Do you think their ideology was that different or
RIDDLE: Well, it's kind of like DuBois and Booker T.
[Washington], you know. Malcolm [X] and Martin [Luther
King, Jr.]. We need it all. There's no one black
philosophy that's going to cover all the black diversity
and bring everybody together. Again, like art in the
Watts riots. My first real art stuff came when I met Noah
[Purifoy] and them after the riots, because we put
together the first Watts [Summer] Festival [of Art] .
RIDDLE: The very first one.
MASON: Were you part of the 66 Signs of Neon, too?
RIDDLE: Uh-huh. That's in that show with Noah when he
has Sir Watts. See, that's when I met Noah. He was
making that thing out of those safety pins, because he had
gotten all that out of a cleaners that had burned up. But
Signs of Neon was like, to me, when I first met real black
artists and they were doing stuff. And we had those art
festivals out there in Watts. But Alonzo had like the
first black gallery.
CARMEN RIDDLE: And gathering.
RIDDLE: Those were the greatest Saturday meetings when
you had to bring a piece to critique. And it couldn't be
no old piece; it had to be something you just worked on.
You had to stick it up there in front of everybody, and
everybody sat on the other wall at Brockman on the floor.
And there was a couple of jugs of paisano wine, and
everybody sat back and--
CARMEN RIDDLE: They drank and partied.
RIDDLE: You know, and you had to prove your point through
your art .
CARMEN RIDDLE: That's right. And they were all such
great artists, just great.
RIDDLE: And I got to really be friends with these people
I had never met, like Bridge and David and John.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Did you do Outterbridge?
MASON: Yeah, Richard [Candida] Smith--I guess you talked
to him on the phone--did John Outterbridge. It was a long
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh, really?
MASON: He had a lot to talk about.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh, yeah. He can talk a lot about
MASON: What about all those organizations that sprang up
after the Watts uprising, like the Mafundi Institute and
the Watts Writers Workshop?
RIDDLE: They were good. [Budd] Schulberg did the Watts
Writers Workshop. And it gave people who were in the
same organized anger an outlet, who were writers- And
what's the old guy? They still show him. He started
founding and developing black entrepreneurship. A real
MASON: Jim Woods?
RIDDLE: It's a real old guy. He was young then, but he's
real old. I see him on TV still, and he had a
manufacturing-- Like the first black baseball bats that
were ever made for the major league, they had a bat
factory out there.
MASON: Okay. I know who you're talking about, but I
can't remember what his name is.
RIDDLE: I mean, it folded. I used to go to those
meetings and that's when I first heard the concept "art
pimps." I mean, "poverty pimps." These guys would be in
these meetings and they had like $200 alligator shoes and
fine clothes, and they would be talking about
administering this federal money for the masses, and I
could tell by looking at them where the money was going.
They would put that money in their pockets, you know. But
that's when black folks was really-- Poverty pimps, that's
what they were. We used to call them the poverty pimps,
and they'd get mad.
But a lot of things [were] good and a lot of things
bad. Bridge went out there, for instance, to build this
tribute to the Watts riots.
RIDDLE: They burnt that sucker up. It was supposed to be
like a drum kind of tower thing that--
CARMEN RIDDLE: He worked in the Watts Towers.
RIDDLE: But those people burned it up.
MASON: Actually, Richard wanted me to ask you about that,
RIDDLE: It's a vague memory, now. I just remember they
built it and it burned up.
MASON: Well, who would have burned it up? Because I know
there was kind of a--
RIDDLE: People out there who didn't like it, you know.
Because they felt like--
MASON: People who didn't like the art or something?
RIDDLE: They felt like it was in a vacant lot where some
stuff had burned down, as I recall. And it was like, "We
need jobs and we need these things, and you're going to
put this old piece of crap out here? We don't care
nothing about this!"
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah, you know, a lot of people think
artists are elitists. They feel that art isn't-- "How's
the art going to help me eat?" and all that.
RIDDLE: So I mean--
CARMEN RIDDLE: There's always been kind of a gap between
art and the lower classes, because art is primarily for--
Even though the artists may be for the lower classes, or
from the lower classes, the people who buy art and get to
enjoy art are usually the elite, and the people who are
knowledgeable about it.
RIDDLE: And people who have expendable cash to buy things
that are-- Again, it goes into the abstract.
CARMEN RIDDLE: It's like most people-- Say, before we got
here-- It's a black city now. But before we got here,
most of the people who were his patrons were white. Even
though he was doing black art, the people who bought his
art were white. So it's kind of a conflict.
MASON: Well, you have some celebrities here.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Hmm?
MASON: Black celebrities, though. You had like Sidney
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh, yeah. Well, he tries to think of the
RIDDLE: Well, he bought in L.A.
CARMEN RIDDLE: There were more whites that supported him
than blacks. His idea in doing art, though, was to have
blacks buy his art and to have it in their homes and to
have it affordable.
RIDDLE: Yeah, that was my motto.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Because most of the people who could
afford it, like doctors and so forth, were not buying art.
MASON: Like Leon [0.] Banks?
RIDDLE: It was like quality art at affordable prices.
CARMEN RIDDLE: That's right.
RIDDLE: That was my motto. That's when I went into
printmaking, because you could do multiple images and you
could afford to sell a piece for $200, because you had one
hundred of them.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah, and most people could afford it.
And here, I mean--
RIDDLE: Whereas now you get an original, you want $2,000,
and you can't find nobody.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He's in everybody's home here. I mean, he
RIDDLE: That's why I need to get out of here. I've
saturated the market. [laughter]
CARMEN RIDDLE: And plus, like Andy [Andrew J.] Young
[Jr.] and them, they all have-- Andy must have about ten
pieces of his in his own home. He's really just sold to
everybody; [everybody] has some of his art here.
RIDDLE: And he's given me commissions, too. In fact, he
gave me an Olympic [Games] commission to do a poster for
the Olympics. And they were mad at first and said, "Well,
you can't just do this without competition, Andy." And
Shirley Franklin said, "Well, if Andy says he's going to
do it, I guess it will happen that way." In fact, I was
supposed to call him; I didn't call him yet.
MASON: Yeah. That brings me to a question that I wanted
to ask you about, this idea of trying to communicate with
the black community. Because the interview I just did, we
were talking about the Studio Museum and how the director
feels that the Studio Museum should be responsible to the
community in which it resides and it shouldn't talk down
to people and that sort of thing. But I just wonder, how
do you find out where people are and what they want and
what they're thinking about? I was also talking to an
independent black filmmaker who said that his films,
although they deal with black life realistically-- I mean,
just take, like. To Sleep with Anger, Charles Burnett. It
didn't do as well as Superf ly , and yet it was a film that,
it seems, a lot of black people could identify with and,
you know, is exquisitely done. And so, as a black artist
you're trying to sort of negotiate these things. How do
CARMEN RIDDLE: I don't think he does.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Just being black and living as a black
man, he just puts down what he knows.
RIDDLE: Yeah, there's always resource material that comes
to you. That's what goes all the way back to the earlier
comment on Bobby Seale and "Art ain't shit." I had just
gone through nine years of night school, and I just never
stopped. And here I was getting ready to be an artist,
and here's a black person who I respected saying that what
I did wasn't worth anything. And then the only way I
could rationalize it was somewhere else. In the next
couple of paragraphs in his book, he spoke to the issue.
Unless it advances social consciousness and promotes black
development and all that- -then it has value. So then once
I saw that rationalization, I said, "Okay, now I'm
justified." But I know in another sense it's locked me
into a process I've never gotten out of, and that's the
social consciousness of black people through art, where a
lot of times I'd like just to give that up. But like
Carmen said, there's always, every day, some resource. It
could be Rodney King; it can be Somalia versus whatever
that place is.
CARMEN RIDDLE: That's pretty good.
RIDDLE: And, you know, it's just like it can be even more
CARMEN RIDDLE: The Haitians.
RIDDLE: Yeah, the Haitians versus they let all the
Hispanics come because they work for nothing: you don't
have to pay any benefits, you don't pay Uncle Sam taxes,
because this is people that don't really exist except they
come to work every day.
MASON: I think they do pay taxes, though.
RIDDLE: Not on all of them. I mean, there's a lot of
that Hispanic labor that doesn't exist on paper, but it
exists in production. And that's profit. Every nickle
they can save off a worker from salary right on through
the whole wage, cost of workers, I mean-- But that's why
they let them come in by the millions.
MASON: Let me turn this tape over.
RIDDLE: It's SO the Hispanics can come in by the
MASON: Well, that's okay--
RIDDLE: But, I mean, that's the same way we were talking
about yesterday. They shot down that plane over there in
Yugoslavia with the Italian United Nations worker. Now,
if Saddam Hussein had shot down or even shot at some of
those inspectors, [George H.W.] Bush would be blowing
Saddam Hussein up right today. But it just depends.
They're not going to go over there and jump on other white
people. That's why George Carlin does that whole comic
routine: we only blow up black, brown, and yellow people.
In my lifetime, since the Second World War, there haven't
been any wars with white people. It's always been some
white people giving some weapons to some brown-skinned
people to kill each other. The white people are trying to
do it themselves, because they started the whole problem
in Somalia anyway when it was a struggle between the
United States and Russia over who would control the horn
MASON: Yeah. And then they make it seem like, "Oh, these
poor Africans are too stupid to know how to take care of
themselves." Even though they were the first people on
CARMEN RIDDLE: I know.
MASON: You know, it's pretty ridiculous.
CARMEN RIDDLE: I know. Well, at least they're finally
having to help. I guess, because they sent help to Bosnia
and all that, they have to give some help to Somalia.
RIDDLE: They don't realize--and I think this is the role
of the social artist whether he's black or white--that
there's just enough resources on the planet to take care
of the problems of the planet. Because there's very
little difference between bragging about Saddam Hussein
didn't have electricity, the kids didn't have milk, the
people didn't have shelter, they didn't have water, they
didn't have this-- There's no difference between that and
Hurricane Andrew going through south Florida. It's the
same fact. When Bush started [Operation] Desert Storm and
they said they killed x number of Iraqis, at the same time
there was a monsoon that went through some place over
there in India and killed the exact same amount of people.
One was man-made, one was natural. And there's just
enough resources to take care of what ' s here without the
need for implements of war and all this waste and all
I always tell Carmen, "Art is the prison." The
criminal justice system in America is the last vestige of
slavery in the black community, and how much money does
the total criminal justice system make in America? I
mean, from the judges, lawyers, all legitimate people--
nothing wrong with them--the police, planners, architects,
builders of the penitentiaries, the people who supply the
stuff. Now, we need places to keep these prisoners,
because we raise some bad-thinking people. But if there
was peace tomorrow, we'd have troubled times, like we're
having right now, because there's less need for war. But
if there was the cessation of crime tomorrow, the
insurance companies who get to sell two cars or two TVs,
the brokers who get their commissions-- You think about
every legitimate, honest, upstanding citizen who makes
money off the fact that people do crime, if they all lost
their jobs. See, we need crime. That's why crack can
come in .
I saw Bush say he's going to rebuild Homestead. But
when they caught [Eugene] Hasenfus in that drug arms
plane, when they shot it down in Nicaragua and they let
him out, and he said, "Yeah, we take arms to Nicaragua for
the Contras, but we don't believe in coming back with
empty planes, so we bring cocaine back from Hall's Ranch
in Costa Rica." And I saw one night on TV infrared
cameras showed the plane land at Homestead Air Force Base,
go through a remote part of the runway. They offloaded it
into some trucks that said "Ramiro's Seafood Wholesalers"
or something, and the truck drove right off the base. I
mean, the American government is involved in drug
smuggling. It's big business. It helps suppress black
anger about what ' s going on in the community and in the
country by turning black on black. Put all these vicious
fools out there killing each other and stealing your
goods and making you ashamed of black people, making you
hate black people, making you not come together as a
community. It's all planned. They couldn't just say,
"Oh, this is just some coincidence." That's just a
diabolical plan where crackers make money and we
eliminate ourselves and they know it. And we're stupid
enough to be involved in it. But if somebody's not doing
something against it to pull people's coats, maybe art
isn't strong enough.
You said Super fly. I mean, the most black folk got
out of Superf ly that I noticed was they were wearing
cocaine spoons on chains and guys were buying those hats
with hair hanging down in the back so they could look
like Ron O. Neal . Now, to me, it's one of my favorite
movies because it's full of symbolism from start to
RIDDLE: But black people that I talk to, a lot of them
didn't see that symbolism. Maybe because I deal in
symbology as an artist, from the beginning to the end, I
saw nothing but symbols. But a lot of people
misinterpreted. A lot of people saw that as a sign to
escalate the cocaine business on every level. To be hip,
to have chains with coke spoons around your necks, and to
go off and say, "What's happenin?" and be cool. I mean,
they got all the wrong-- All the front people saw it as a
way to have a new front game, the cocaine trade.
MASON: Yeah. Was the drug culture part of the black
TAPE NUMBER: III, SIDE ONE
SEPTEMBER 5, 1992
MASON: Okay. I guess, we were talking about the drug
culture. And you were saying- -
RIDDLE: Like I said, amongst the artists that Carmen and
I have been speaking of, none of them were-- I can't say
that either. As the movement of black artists grew, there
were a couple of guys that I can't-- One of the guys'
names almost came to my head, but--
MASON: You don't have to name any names.
RIDDLE: No, but I'm just saying, there were a couple of
CARMEN RIDDLE: But I remember going to that party. You
know, the Bohanon party?
MASON: Oh, Gloria Bohanon?
CARMEN RIDDLE: Uh-huh.
RIDDLE: And George.
CARMEN RIDDLE: And her husband was a musician. He had a
lot of musicians there. And I remember some of them were
taking drugs, and the artists said, "Uh-oh, we'd better
get out of here."
RIDDLE: Yeah, I remember one time I was looking for all
of my friends and they had disappeared. That always was a
sign that you were missing something if you went to a
party and all your friends disappeared. I mean, that went
back to teenage times. So I went looking for them, and
they were all out in the front on Gloria's wall in front
of her house. There was about ten people there. And I
saw Dan [Concholar] , so I went and sat next to Dan. The
funniest thing-- The people who were out there, they
weren' t--like Carmen said--artists, but they were at the
CARMEN RIDDLE: Musicians and Hollywood types.
RIDDLE: Yeah, and they were snorting cocaine. What they
had was a dollar bill, or some kind of bill, with cocaine
on it and they had another dollar bill rolled up. They
were passing it down this row of people and it got to Dan.
And there was a guy sitting next to me too. And it got to
Dan, and I heard him say, "Here, man. " And Dan
said--he would always talk so cool-- "No thanks, man.
That's too heavy for me." And I thought that I would fall
out laughing, boy. But that was basically how the artists
CARMEN RIDDLE: They would take a bottle of wine around.
RIDDLE: Kept some paisano's cheap wine. A half gallon.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Paisano. Just drink wine and talk. And
they really didn't need drugs.
RIDDLE: They might smoke some pot, but they didn't do
Now, there was a couple of artists later that were
really good artists, but they drifted in and out because
they were using heroin. I just remember that we had a
show at UCLA one time, and two of the guys in that show
were really good artists. One of them was a pure heroin
junkie. I mean, he was one of those nodding-out junkies.
He was one of the people who said one time at one of the
things at Brockman [Gallery] that the-- How do you phrase
it? It was about the loss of human potential. The wasted
human potential. It was the first time I heard it said
that poetically, about how all these black people never
got a chance to be what they could have been, or should
have been, were just cast off as wasted potential because
their skin color was wrong. I mean, those are the basic
tenets of racism that you just disregard people because of
what they look like.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh, I thought you meant because they were
RIDDLE: No. But I mean, that's a phase of the waste that
takes place when people don't get a chance to explore what
they should really be about.
MASON: You think of people like Charlie Parker maybe who
were not necessarily interested in drugs as, like,
consciousness expanding. It was more of an escape, I
CARMEN RIDDLE: Plus the life they led. They had to go
from town to town. In those days, those musicians were
like that. They had to see different people every night.
It was just a hard life.
RIDDLE: It was an acceptable part of the behavior of
musicians of that era, because most of them were junkies.
I mean, if you look at Miles Davis's autobiography and he
talks about different bands he had with Sonny Rollins and
one of the Heath brothers, all of them were junkies.
CARMEN RIDDLE: All of them were junkies.
RIDDLE: And when they took their break, that's what they
did--go out and shoot up. You know, there was a lot of
pressure to be a drug addict if you were playing every
night live jazz in the bebop era. That was just part of
CARMEN RIDDLE: I think of all of the artistic things,
that visual artists have this less. He's probably less of
a drug addict than a writer. They say most writers have a
tendency to be alcoholics because it's a very lonely
thing. But for some reason, the visual artists, the ones
that I've met, were not into drugs.
RIDDLE: I've known very few that were into cocaine. Not
an exception was [Herman] "Kofi" Bailey, because he was a
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh, he was an alcoholic for the most part.
RIDDLE: Pills and alcohol. I mean, he'd drop pills and
then he'd drink.
CARMEN RIDDLE: But a genius, a pure genius at his art.
RIDDLE: When he had money, he always had a full pint of
scotch and one that was almost empty, or it might have
been vodka he drank.
CARMEN RIDDLE: But I think he would have been anyway. He
had so many problems at Spelman [College] .
MASON: I understand, though, that he taught Emory
RIDDLE: He was at Spelman for a while.
MASON: Oh, okay.
CARMEN RIDDLE: They put him off the campus in his later
days because he was harassing--
CARMEN RIDDLE: --the girls at the place. They had to
tell him not to come back to the campus, and then when he
died, they gave him a eulogy.
RIDDLE: He used to come over here and drink and sit out.
But at the end, he was incoherent. And when I first met
him, he was incoherent. He was in Claude Booker's car
CARMEN RIDDLE: But he could really-- Boy, he was a great
RIDDLE: Dropped pills at ten in the morning and was
drinking by ten thirty.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Great artist.
RIDDLE: I could tell he was the kind of person who was
trying to kill himself for whatever reason.
CARMEN RIDDLE: But all the others — Jacob Lawrence, Charles
[E.] White, Romare Bearden--I don't think of them as being
abusers of any kind of intoxicants, really. Do you?
RIDDLE: A good example is Bill.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Bill?
RIDDLE: I mean. Bill Pajaud. He told me as recently as
yesterday-- We were talking about those Saturday
excursions we used to go on. He said, "John, if it hadn't
been for those, I'd probably just be an old drunk now,
because all I did was drink." And when he started doing
art, he put his bottle aside and started--
CARMEN RIDDLE: It's therapy.
RIDDLE: He'd take up that therapy instead of the negative
escapism. See, they've both got escapism, but one's
CARMEN RIDDLE: I don't know if you've heard of Benny
MASON: Yeah, he ' s a New York artist.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Well, no. He ' s a Georgia artist, but he
lives in New York. They're so proud of him here because
he came from south Georgia.
RIDDLE: They had an article in the paper about him the
CARMEN RIDDLE: He was a-- What do you call [a person]
that works in the field?
RIDDLE: A sharecropper.
CARMEN RIDDLE: A sharecropper, yeah.
RIDDLE: He and his brother are artists.
CARMEN RIDDLE: His brother just died.
RIDDLE: His brother just died.
CARMEN RIDDLE: His brother's a writer.
RIDDLE: But I'll tell you the difference between artists
here when I first moved here. These artists were so
selfish, for the most part, so into themselves, that they
could never form an arts association. They tried. It was
the Black Artists of Atlanta, another BAAism. They tried,
but it was never like with Alonzo and them. It was like
other things .
MASON: What were they competing for?
RIDDLE: On the social level more than as artists.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah, because, you see, it's the South.
RIDDLE: Don't share your knowledge with other artists,
because they might be able to do as well as you in your
field. I mean, all that. Shoot, Lev Mills was the
classic. I asked him to show me how to silk-screen, and
he said, "I don't have time to show you how to silk-
screen." So I went and learned it somewhere else. But if
somebody had asked me and I had the knowledge, I would
have said, "Yeah, come on by and the next time I screen,
I'll let you sit in and you can check it out." But it
wasn't that, and it wasn't like-- They lived better. They
had nicer houses here and they had wall-to-wall carpet.
CARMEN RIDDLE: They didn't believe in the artistic life.
RIDDLE: They didn't drink wine and sit on the floor.
CARMEN RIDDLE: No.
RIDDLE: And they didn't talk about anything, and it was
MASON: Did they have full-time jobs and then paint? Is
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah.
MASON: I see. Were they getting exposure in galleries or
anything? Or crafts? Or anything?
RIDDLE: Yeah, to an extent. I mean, they were doing as
well as any--
CARMEN RIDDLE: It's just their lifestyle's completely
different from the artists on the West Coast.
RIDDLE: It was more cliquish.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Because on the West Coast, you're admired
for being different and being an artist. Coming so close
to Hollywood, I think, too, that has a lot to do with it.
You're given respect for art. Whereas back here, they're
closer to slavery, and the main thing is to get away from
anything that isn't academic. I mean, what they consider
academic-- Like we are here with all the black colleges,
and so they want to-- The social academic life is more--
RIDDLE: They would spend $3,000 on some outfits for an
art soiree and then get to the soiree and see $500 on the
art and say, "Oh, I can't pay that much for that." But
they would pay $500 for a dress or a suit to go to the
CARMEN RIDDLE: It's just a different way of thinking.
RIDDLE: And plus Los Angeles is a pace-setting place.
California. California sets trends. I heard somebody the
other day say-- They were talking about Proposition 13 and
how it's devastated California's tax base. "They need to
help parts of the problem they got right now." And the
guy said, "But you'd better watch out, because it started
in California. And things like that, that start in
California, have a tendency to cross the United States."
So I think we were beneficiaries of a much higher
energy place than this. Because I came here and I had so
much energy, and then we used to talk about our batteries
would start running down. And you really need to go
somewhere else to recharge.
CARMEN RIDDLE: And our kids, coming from California, it
was good for them, because they picked up the academic
part here. And I think you can always go back to
California and have fun.
MASON: The lifestyle.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Have fun. But they picked up-- Like they
all got scholarships and became different things, a lawyer
and all that kind of stuff. So they got that part from
here, and they could always return to California, although
they haven't. But the California lifestyle is so laid-
back. And our oldest child was a beachcomber, Tony
[Anthony Thomas Riddle] .
RIDDLE: With dreds.
CARMEN RIDDLE: With dredlocks. And then when he got
here, he changed and became a more responsible person.
And now he runs a cable station in Minneapolis, which is--
I mean, you know, it didn't take away from his artistic
part; it's just that he can make money now.
MASON: He was doing assemblages?
RIDDLE: He's always been like-- He used to be a street
merchant. He'd make jewelry and sell it. But now--
CARMEN RIDDLE: Well, that was in California.
RIDDLE: Now he says that that was the hardest time in his
CARMEN RIDDLE: He hated it. He said, "I hated it."
RIDDLE: He said he may never make jewelry again.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He used to make us think that was what he
wanted to do. But that was the California part of him,
and now he's a very responsible person. He's still
artistic, but he's doing something else. You know, he's a
computer type of person and he's making money with it.
MASON: We were talking about being afraid of New York
earlier. What did you mean by that?
CARMEN RIDDLE: We have a daughter in New York.
RIDDLE: Well, only that-- I mean, at the time it was '58,
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh, you mean for art?
RIDDLE: I had been out of the service two years, had at
least two kids [Anthony Thomas Riddle and Deborah Lynn
Riddle] . And New York was like a big unknown. I had
never been out of California east, not really. And all of
a sudden to pack up your whole family and just head for
the great unknown that was New York just seemed a somewhat
scary proposition. Whereas, it turned out that by '73, we
did exactly that. We sold everything that we had — house,
cars- -gave away what we couldn't sell, packed up four
daughters [Deborah Lynn, Shawn Denise, Pamela Ann, and
Spring Robin Riddle], and headed for Trinidad. The
weirdest thing of all, after making that long flight down
there-- We got to the airport and the airport was like a
bustling airport, exciting. A half hour later we're the
only people in the airport, sitting on our luggage. The
place was a ghost town. It's eleven thirty at night. We
didn't know that those airports are only hustle-bustle
when the plane of the day comes in.
MASON : Yeah .
RIDDLE: And then people came up and said in this funny
kind of language we had never heard at all--English was
almost a foreign language-- "Can we help you?"
CARMEN RIDDLE: They were checking us out, because they
couldn't understand why we were there.
RIDDLE: [imitates an unintelligible language] And we
were like, "Jesus Christ, what's happening?" Here we are
these six strangers stranded in the middle of nowhere, six
thousand miles, twice as far as New York from home, don't
know a soul, can't understand what these people were
MASON : Yeah .
RIDDLE: So we ended up doing the same. Maybe we would
have been better off to go to New York with Danny [Daniel
LaRue Johnson] .
CARMEN RIDDLE: We stayed there a while, and then we came
MASON: What did you do in Trinidad?
CARMEN RIDDLE: We lived in this beautiful house on a
CARMEN RIDDLE: We went to the carnival. It was in
RIDDLE: Right next door to the Mighty Sparrow, the
favorite musician of carnival, selected each February. We
always liked that.
CARMEN RIDDLE: We had a good time, and the people were
real friendly, real friendly.
RIDDLE: Now, if we had been con people, we could have
been rich today. Because everybody saw this family of
four daughters, and we had no visible means of support, so
they figured we had great wealth. We always had people
inviting us to these nice cocktail parties in backyards
with wealthy people and bankers. "These are the Riddles.
They just got here from California." And everybody's all
jumping all over you and wanting us to invest money, open
accounts in banks, and we ain't got quarters. But, I
mean, if we had been slick con people with a plan, we
might have been able to pull something off.
MASON: Did you make any art out of that experience or
during that time?
RIDDLE: No, I just read. It turned out to be like a long
vacation. I read books, and we sat on our porch all day.
CARMEN RIDDLE: We went to the carnival at night.
RIDDLE: Went to carnival at night.
CARMEN RIDDLE: It was amazing because those people danced
through the streets, and you'd hear the music in all the
RIDDLE: Uh-huh, it was great.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Everybody just dancing through. Did you
ever see Black Orpheus?
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh, gosh. You should look at that. It's
a great movie. It's about the carnival in Rio.
MASON: I see.
CARMEN RIDDLE: The same thing.
RIDDLE: It was carnival and you went to "jump-ups" every
night. And one night--
MASON: What is that?
RIDDLE: That's like what they call a party.
RIDDLE: And you go and you jump up and down. And we let
our kids go to the beach. We always laugh now when
someone says, "Where are your daughters?" She'd say, "Oh,
they went to the beach." "They went to the beach?
Alone?" Like nobody ever went to the beach alone.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Then we started getting scared. We said,
"Oh, my god!"
RIDDLE: "Our kids are gone forever I" But it was an
And then we came back to Miami . And those Cubans
that left Castro's Cuba, they want to act more white than
white people. So they were worse racists than white
MASON: Yeah, they were real conservative Republicans.
RIDDLE: So we stayed there about a week and we cut out.
We came here because we heard this was "little New York."
CARMEN RIDDLE: Because there was a black mayor [Maynard
RIDDLE: It wasn't little New York.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Uh-uh.
MASON: Yeah. You get the impression that Atlanta is a
black city, but then you wonder how much black people
really control in terms of the economics.
RIDDLE: Yeah, that's where the breakdowns come.
CARMEN RIDDLE: And what kind of black people?
RIDDLE: Political power--they control it. But in terms
of economics, it's no contest. That's why at the
beginning when we were talking about Billy Paine and
Maynard and them-- I mean, those people just took the
Olympic's money and the Olympic's operation and said, "No.
You got us the city. Now get out of the way. We're gonna
run it. "
CARMEN RIDDLE: They Still don't got the [inaudible].
RIDDLE: They said that in the papers, too.
CARMEN RIDDLE: They did? Today?
RIDDLE: Not about the [inaudible]. But that they told
the commissioner, Michael Lomax, who's an exponent of
cultural arts and things here-- In fact, he's the
spearhead behind the National Black Arts Festival. And
they told him--
MASON: He isn't related to the Los Angeles Lomax?
RIDDLE: Same people.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Uh-huh.
RIDDLE: They used to live right there on Cimarron
[Street] and Adams [Boulevard] when I was growing up.
Melanie [Lomax] , and Wilhemina [Lomax] , the woman who sued
the [Los Angeles] Times for the job, because she was a
reporter-- They had that newspaper-- What's that paper?
CARMEN RIDDLE: No.
RIDDLE: The Atlanta-- The L.A. what? Wasn't that the
CARMEN RIDDLE: The Sentinel or the [California] Eagle.
But that wasn't what they were--
RIDDLE: But she had a black newspaper.
CARMEN RIDDLE: They refused to hire her at the Times.
RIDDLE: As a reporter.
CARMEN RIDDLE: I wonder if Melanie ever became a lawyer.
RIDDLE: She got eleven years' back pay.
MASON : Wow !
RIDDLE: Plus the job.
MASON : Wow !
RIDDLE: So, yeah. Michael's one of them. There's about
MASON: I'm still not sure who controls the Olympics now.
Is it a big corporation or--?
RIDDLE: White people.
MASON: Or is it a corporate interest?
RIDDLE: Well, it's called the Atlantic Committee for the
Olympic Games, ACOG. It's under the control of white
people. There's some black token people, but the white
people make all the decisions. You know, anytime it's--
Like my father said, "Whenever there's a pile of money,
Johnny, there's always gonna be some criminals around."
And you're looking at the kind of money L.A. Olympics was
supposed to have generated, in the billions and billions.
You probably have people who just follow Olympics all
around the world, and every four years they get a cut of
the pie. It wouldn't be unreasonable, because there's a
lot of expertise in Atlanta now--with the Olympic Games in
Los Angeles that came here directly from Barcelona. So
you've got that group of people. Then you've got people
who right now, like we're doing this interview, they're
sitting up talking, cutting deals on their share of the
pie and their middleman fee and their commission for
hooking up deals and all that. So by the time the people
find out two weeks before the Olympics, they'll be going
around, "Where's my part?" And there ain't nothing. You
can't even get a ticket then.
MASON: Yeah. And so there's no organization that will
make black people more aware of what ' s happening? ,
CARMEN RIDDLE: Well, that's what the mayor is trying to
do and everything. You know, they're trying.
RIDDLE: That's why he don't have no power. They left him
outside. They told him they couldn't do nothing. They
CARMEN RIDDLE: The city council tries. They're all in
there trying. But the thing is-- What they do is, like
with the city council trying, they hire the city council
president's sister and wife and all that so that they're--
They say, "Okay." You know, they can be bought, too. So
it's all kind of crafty. Not that bad, though. We make
it sound so horrible.
RIDDLE: Well, actually, it makes me mad, because I can
see that if you're not like an aggressive hustler--
CARMEN RIDDLE: It's probably like that in any city.
RIDDLE: Like right on. You quit your other job and your
full-time job is to be in these Olympics making some
dough. If you don't take it as that kind of an approach,
there ' s not anything for you . And the other people feel
like, "Well, I'll just sit back here and benefit."
Suppose I was an artist who wanted to do some Olympic T-
shirts or posters or-- Because it's all for this giant
influx of people. Well, they're going to arrest you.
They're going to run you off the streets. They're going
to tell you you can't do this because you're not
authorized to make money off of the Olympics. Only the
"in" people can make money off the Olympics. You know,
this is supposed to be the land of free entrepreneurship.
You know, creating business.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Well, you're getting to do something in
RIDDLE: Yeah, but I mean that's only because I knew
CARMEN RIDDLE: I know. [laughter]
RIDDLE: What about the guy who's a better artist than me
and would be much more enthusiastic than I've been to this
CARMEN RIDDLE: Thank goodness you knew somebody.
RIDDLE: --who don't know nobody. He don't have a chance.
CAP?MEN RIDDLE: It's always the way.
RIDDLE: That's not-- It doesn't make it right.
MASON: What kind of people do like you? Black people,
are they interested? Does anybody do assemblage, for
example? Or mostly painters? Or--?
CARMEN RIDDLE: Here?
MASON: Yeah, in Atlanta?
CARMEN RIDDLE: In Atlanta. I guess they have everybody.
RIDDLE: Well, I could tell you more painters than other
things. But I think that's probably true most anywhere,
that there ' s probably more painters than printmakers and
sculptors. There's probably an equal amount of
craftspeople if you add them all up together, the weavers
and the potters and-- But I don't really know, because
I've kind of dropped out of the art activity--! mean, like
the social activities, going to shows.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He does go to shows every once in a while.
RIDDLE: Although when I go, I like them. But I don't
CARMEN RIDDLE: No, we get about three or four art
invitations a day for different stuff, but we just never
go. We never go.
RIDDLE: I haven't even been going to my own art shows
lately. I go opening night because you've got to show up,
but I never go back. I go back and take it off the wall
when the show is over.
MASON: You seem tired, so we can take a break here then
and finish up. [tape recorder off]
MASON: Let's see. We talked a little about your
paintings, and I was just wondering how-- Well, in this
press release, it says you're interested in-- Let's see,
"recently lectured at the Los Angeles County Museum [of
Art] on the current phenomenon of black art as related to
great social protest artists of the past." Some of the
colors and the structures of the things that you use in
the paintings seem-- I mean, because it kind of reminds me
of Jacob Lawrence in some ways. Was that something that
you were trying to look at and then build on? Did you
study with Charles White or anything like that?
RIDDLE: Well, I knew Charles and I taught some of his
classes at Otis [Parson Art Institute] when he was on a
sabbatical for gifted black students. That was a program
sponsored by Golden State [Mutual] Life Insurance
[Company] . But I think it was like the critics used to
say, when blacks were emerging on the American art scene
in a more prominent, conflicting way. They used to always
say that the black art used bold, primary colors. And I
think that's just something that Jacob Lawrence plugged
into along the way, just like myself or Varnette
[Honeywood] or a lot of the black artists now use bold
I know AFRI-COBRA's bold colors were African designs
or motifs, like triangles and repeat patterns and things.
But I just think the bold color is as much a part of black
as-- Well, they used to complain that why did blacks dress
boldly and wear jewelry. They used to call it gaudy
dress. Now you look and everybody that's hip has open
collars and gaudy dress, even today where the colors that
people wear on the street in their sport clothes are
outlandishly colorful. There is just blatant color now in
today's fashion. So I just think that it's something
that's characteristic of the African artists. If you look
at the modern African artists, they use a lot of bold
color and primary and secondary colors without a lot of
tint and hue in them. I just think it's part of the
argument that we used to espouse: "Is there or is there
not black art?" And I think there are certain
characteristics that black artists used that do make up a
^4AS0N: I was just thinking of trying to find a painting
that you have. Yeah, this one: "Untitled 1967." In the
middle it's got a photograph of a family; it looks like
one of these WPA [Works Progress Administration]
photographs of the 1930s.
RIDDLE: Oh, I remember that piece. It wasn't really
untitled. It is a part of the collection of Jackie and Al
Ryan of Los Angeles. It was called The Olympic Stand, and
it's the 1972 Olympic Games when-- I can't think of these
two guys' names anymore that make up the border of this
piece. But it was Williams and another black who were on
the victory stand, but they weren't standing at attention
when they played the national anthem. They were standing- -
I remember it said in Life magazine, where I took these
pictures--with their arms akimbo. It was the same Olympics
that the Israeli wrestling team had been taken hostage by
the Palestinians and the showdown at the Munich airport.
They rushed the helicopter and somebody in the helicopter
set off a hand grenade and everybody in the helicopter got
killed. And they were very mad at the Palestinians, so
they took it out on these two brothers because they didn't
stand for the Olympics at attention.
They thought somehow that was some kind of a Mexico
City, [John] Carlos and [Thomas "Tommie"] Smith black fist
protest, which it wasn't. And they banned these guys from
Olympic competition for life. And yet they didn't ban Dave
Wattle, who stood on the victory stand with a baseball hat
on his head and never took his hat off, or the little girl
who won some swimming medals I saw on TV crying and rubbing
her eyes rather than stand at attention during the
emotionalism of the ceremony. But they picked these two
brothers off the relay team and banned them for life in the
So inside the frame, I showed a repetition of these
people with yokes around their necks and their hands tied
behind their back coming from across the blue space that
was water and ending up behind a mule and plowing and also
picking cotton. And all these repetitions end up with this
George [who] is sitting in front of this bench, and all the
seats in front of the bench are black folk. And this line
here from this man's leg becomes this tree, which was a
famous lynching scene where they lynched two brothers at
the same time. It's in all the lynching pictures. And
people are standing around, even the little kids. It's
like a very gala festivity with these two broken-neck
brothers hanging out of this tree. And I was noticing that
white people stand at attention for things like that, when
black folks are hanging out of trees.
I also show here a brother protesting, like throwing a
rock or whatever, and he was in a bull's-eye. And then the
patrol of poverty and this repressed, suppressed zone of
black folk with the typical L.A. "To Protect and Serve"
police car-- And then [there are] these very rigid, very
faded people that I always used to paint in a red, white,
and blue mixture, and mix it down real pastel so you have
these cold pinks and cold blues and cold whites. They're
all standing at attention looking at-- Some of them are at
attention looking at these two brothers on the TV screen,
and also one of them's in the chaise lounge.
So, I mean, white people don't stand up for the
national anthem either. It was just a case of persecution
to show protest and placate, in my opinion, at that
particular time, our Jewish population, because they were
the recipients of a very sad affair in Munich. And that's
what that piece was. It definitely wouldn't have been
untitled if I'd-- I never use the word "untitled."
MASON: Well, there are a lot of mistakes in this catalog
as far as dates--
RIDDLE: Yeah, that's what I was saying. My titles
precede--they always precede the work. I think up the
titles before I ever even do the piece. Because I do all
my pieces conceptually in my head, and then if I decide I
don't want to do them, then I never do. Sometimes I get
satisfaction just doing them in my head, and they never
come out to be--
MASON: Yeah, conceptual art.
RIDDLE: That was a Watts riot piece right there.
MASON: The Clubs Is Trumps?
RIDDLE: Uh-huh. Because it was a play on black folks
playing bid whist, and the fact that blacks-- We have all
the spades. We have the ace of spades. If you've ever
played whist, you know that sometimes you could have a
heavy-suited hand. So in this case, clubs is trumps. We
just happen to have no clubs. And a deuce of clubs can
trump any spade in this particular formation of hand. I
used mattress ticking from the prison mattress to show that
our consciousness was asleep to our power. And the ace--
Sometimes in whist like that, the ace may turn a book, the
king may turn a book, if you're lucky. I mean, there's
little likelihood. The queen was like stylish women; the
jacks were like men in old-fashioned clothes. The ten was
party. The nine was the big ride, the front. The eight
was idleness. The seven was minimum wage- -even though it
was honest work- -minimum wage work. Six was matriarchal
mother out in the streets with an umbrella carrying home
the groceries and stuff when she should be as retired as
some of those retirees in Florida. The five was a bad
diet. And, you know, the four was chump change and the
brothers grumbling over chump change. And one brother only
had one leg, to show that that's how disabled we are at
that level. The three was the penitentiary.
And the two was a brother with a dew rag
[handkerchief] that I got out of another Life magazine one
time. The snarling brother at the Watts riots — Underneath
it said "Get whitey." But it's just here's the brother
that's powerless, but he's filled with anger. And to me,
going back on DuBois and Booker T. [Washington]-- See now,
DuBois said the "intellectual tenth," you know, that
talented tenth-- And Booker T. said, "Train the masses to
vocational skill." And now if you put that brother with
them, you have the perfect black scenario. You've got the
angry, hostile black who's getting ready to tear off his
shirt and give up his life to get whitey. The
insurrectionist. So then the white people always say,
"Well, what do they want? What do they want? What do you
Then, that's when DuBois centers in with the talented
tenth who negotiate the wants. Then he steps aside, and
Booker T. comes in and fills the positions with skilled
people. And then he steps aside and the angry Mr. T-type
brother jumps back out and says, "Raaaaah!" And the crowd
says, "Oh, what does he want? What does he want?" And you
just keep that scenario going. Because you see,
segregation and exploitation are twenty-four hours. They
work three shifts. And if you don't work three shifts with
them, all your gains are eroded in the time that you're
resting. So that's what that piece was about.
MASON: The tire floating around. [refers to the creek
outside the window]
RIDDLE: The debris. As long as it doesn't stop in my part
of the creek.
MASON: Okay. And then you have the Statue of Liberty
RIDDLE: Well, in that particular case she represents what
liberty was supposed to represent, freedom. Freedom and
liberty are supposed to be, in Western thinking, the top
values, the top concepts of the individual's right. So I
equated [that] with the ace, which is the top card in the
deck. Now, the king was education, because education is
very important. So I equated important things with the
highest two cards in the deck, because-- Again, they might
turn. If you're not lucky, they're going to run a Boston
Then I put at the end of the piece, at the bottom,
because I used to play so much whist-- A lot of times black
people would get bad hands and they would try to throw
their hands in and say, "Misdeal, man! Reshuffle the
cards!" and try to throw their hands in. So I ' m saying in
this piece, "We got a misdeal here, and we need to
reshuffle the cards and shuffle for a better, stronger hand
so that we could survive."
MASON: Yeah. So in taking things like the Statue of
Liberty or the national anthem, do you feel that that's
what protest art is: to take given symbols and then
reinvest them with meaning?
RIDDLE: Yeah. Because there was a guy named Willy Ricks.
He didn't get credit in the black power movement for saying
"Black Power, " but he was in SNCC [Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee] with Stokely Carmichael. He was
living down here when I moved down here. And a lot of
knowledgeable people used to say, "You know, Willy, he's
the one who used to say it." But Stokely Carmichael was
there when the mikes were there. He was the one that fate
chose, according to this scenario of history, to be the one
to say "Black Power!"
But anyway, I used to talk to Willy all the time, and
one time I asked Willy about SNCC. And I said, "Well,
what's the role of a student in a revolution?" And he had
a very clear answer. He said, "To articulate the
contradiction." So therefore, he would say, you study and
you learn and you get this knowledge and then you're able
to articulate the contradictions between what ' s being put
on you and how it should be. So I feel like in art you
take those standard symbols, and you articulate the
contradiction between what that symbol is and what it's
supposed to be.
And I fell in love with the copy machine, because at
that time I realized-- The same way I realized
sculpturally, that you don't have to create your own
shadows; the sculpture creates its own shadows by its
actual space taking. It's the same with Xerox. I found
out I didn't have to draw if I didn't want to. If I saw
something that I could make a Xerox copy of that was better
than what I could draw, that could take me directly to the
point. I would use that. So that's how collage--
Now, I felt like collage is an important part of art.
I had a teacher named Frank Williams at Cal[ifornia] State
[University, Los Angeles] , and he was a-- A lot of people
didn't like him as a teacher. Some students thought he was
too loose; some thought he was too rigid. He was the kind
of guy-- He was a painter, but he just liked technique.
He'd give you technique, and you could do whatever you
wanted. And he showed us this method with acrylics of
painting matte medium on a photograph, seven or eight
coats. Let them dry and, in between coats, soak it in
water, turn it upside down. You could peel all the paper
off the back and all the ink would stick to the medium.
Where there was no ink, you would have transparency. Where
there was ink you would still have the image. And so, I
mean, I still do that,
I think that's the greatest thing in the world, that I
can take what I call transparent films- -what David Hammons
and I used to call motionless film--that you could tell
stories in sequence but you didn't have film, like in
moviemaking. You had motionless film, because it was
static. But [it] was still frame A, B, C, D, twenty-three,
and there's the picture. So I found by using this
transparency-- Which I had always wanted to paint ten
layers of transparency on top of each other in my art
anyway. That was one of my early goals. But this helped
me very well to be able to use technique to be able to
I still feel that way, except now I'm interested in
using large pieces of torn billboard, like when they scrape
off billboards to put up new billboards. I go by and ask
those guys, "Can I have that billboard stuff?" And they
say, "Yeah, I don't know what you want it for." You bring
it home and you soak it in your bathtub. And you might
have six layers, and you don't know what's under there.
But as the glue dissolves, if you're very careful, you can
separate the layers. And you get very nice collages, kind
of like what [George] Braque and them had to create, where
they had parts of words and parts of textures and colors
and things. That's one of the reasons I want to go bigger
in painting, so that I can explore some of those torn
fragments from the billboards, combined with black social
TAPE NUMBER: III, SIDE TWO
SEPTEMBER 5, 1992
RIDDLE: Let me just conclude with one other thought about
painting that holds true for me in most art forms. I'm an
experimenter. I always want to try something new, because
that's where the excitement is. I think if you hit upon
something that everybody likes, and they say, "Oh, that's
a perfect form" I can't just stay with it, because it
becomes boring. Even though I've done it, I've got to
move on. If somebody else comes along and does it and
then they get credit for doing that same style, I don't
care for two reasons. One, I didn't invent it. I just
evolved myself from the mass ideas of art and expression
that are already out there, and I'm going to go to some
other place. And I know if somebody else sees something--
I remember one time I was doing something, and somebody
asked me, "Well, how do you do that?" And they were
another artist, and I told them. And I thought to myself
afterwards, I said, "Well, if that person is willing to go
through what I just went through to get this particular
process, they're welcome to it." But they've got to go
through — If they want exactly what I just did, they've
got to put out these same hours. So I explained it to him.
It was like a picture of Sammy Davis [Jr.] hugging
[Richard M. ] Nixon in Miami at the convention. And I had
to do seventy-two repetitions of Sammy Davis hugging
Nixon, and I had to scrape the paper off the back. But I
had used paper that was very hard to get the back off of.
In fact, I had to steel wool it off. I finally got my
seventy-two images. And I noticed in the process that a
repetition of the same image seventy-two times in black
and white--it became very lace-like. It was almost like
curtains, because it lost its single identity and it
became a pattern of repeated identities. And it became
something that I hadn't even thought of. I was really
happy that that happened, but at the same time anybody
else who wanted to do that would either have to do it like
I did it or come up with a better, quicker way to do it.
But either way, if you don't invest, you don't get the
return. And I think that combined with the fact that it's
boring if you do something just because people liked it.
To just do it over and over because you could make some
money, to me that's very boring.
MASON: Okay. Well, unless you have anything to add, like
about the Black Arts Council or anything like that, we
could end here. Is there anything else you wanted to add
about your life in Los Angeles? Or--?
RIDDLE: No, I just wasn't-- As a teenager, I wasn't that
successful. I wish I had made my parents more proud than
I did. I wish I hadn't put myself down as far as I did.
I wish I had been more positive, because I could have been
a lot of things that I wasn't. I guess I still have a
chance to be some of the things that I wasn't through art
now, but success takes hard work, discipline, and
sacrifice no matter what it is. Whether you're trying to
play sports or figure out your art ideas, it takes the
same commitment, discipline. All the characteristics that
are in success in one area are in the others. I don't
think Picasso worked any harder than Michael Jordan to get
to the top of what he did. They both had to give up a lot
to get there. But then maybe when you get there, there's
a lot that you get that others don't. I feel that way.
And that's about it, I guess, of John Riddle as an
artist. I wouldn't let my kids be artists. They always
say, "Can I be an artist?" And I'd say, "No, go to school
and learn how to do something that you can make a living
at." Because you can always do art. And that was the
great argument that David [Hammons] and I had at one time.
He felt that you had to sacrifice all your other functions
and primarily be an artist. And I used to say, "No, you
have to raise a family first, and then you can do art."
And he did it the way he believed, which I have no
complaints or any-- You know, I think he did the right
thing for him. I feel like I've done the right thing for
me. Now, at fifty-nine, I think, "Boy, God, just-- All
these kids are grown; I can retire in six years from a
straight job. Give me twenty years to just do art where
Monday and Tuesday just become the next day. " And you get
up in the morning and-- Now, success-- People think you're
successful-- I might even be in this interview because
somebody thought I had reached success as a black artist
to some level. But, to me, success isn't fame and it's
not money. Success is when you can get up in the morning- -
Before you even get up, you wake up in the morning, you
thank God for the day, and you say to yourself, "Shall I
paint? Shall I rest? Shall I lay in the hammock and read
a book? What shall I do today that would really make me
have a worthwhile, fulfilling day?" And you don't have to
worry about bills [that] aren't paid because you're not
out there humping and working. To me, that's the ultimate
in success, to be able to have that control over what you
want to do each day. If I can have me a few years of that
at the end of all of this, then I can say, "Hey, I've
crossed over the success line. "
MASON: Okay. Well, thank you very much.
TAPE NUMBER: IV, SIDE ONE
JUNE 26, 1993
MASON: I just wanted to ask some follow-up questions from
our interview. The last time I made some notes for myself
that wouldn't necessarily correspond to the order that I
typed up the letter. But the same questions would be,
more or less, included in the follow-up, if that's okay.
RIDDLE: Oh, I wasn't listening.
MASON: I was saying that I made some notes after-- I
typed those up from my handwritten notes. And then after
I listened to the tape, I made some other notes, other
kind of follow-up questions that don't necessarily
correspond to the order. But, yeah, it's the same thing.
RIDDLE: What are you going to deal with first? These
questions? Or these names? Or--?
MASON: No, I guess I had more or less some follow-up--
Well, the name list I can just take home, because that's
just for the transcriber, so they can get the correct
names and stuff.
RIDDLE: I just scribbled all over your paper.
MASON: Oh, that's okay. Because I can just--
RIDDLE: But I put arrows to the scribbles.
MASON: Okay. Well, I can just retype this. It's no big
thing. Yeah, mostly just some follow-up questions about
your work, because there were some things that weren't
clear in the first tape. Then, you know, go to the other
questions about the institutions and Black Arts Council
and things like that.
MASON: Okay. One of the things I was wondering about was
you mentioned your father [John Thomas Riddle, Sr.] had a
degree in architecture, and sometimes he would point out
some houses that he and Harold Williams worked on
RIDDLE: That's Paul Williams.
MASON: Paul Williams--! 'm sorry--worked on together. So
I was just wondering whether architecture was something
that was part of discussion in your house, architectural
styles or architectural history.
RIDDLE: Not so much any of that as the fact that there
were architectural materials, like pencils and rulers and
T-squares and triangles and drawing boards. I always saw
my father hovering over the drafting table. So I think
that was probably an influence that was greater than the
natural discussions of architectural periods. I don't
remember any of that.
MASON: Yeah. Okay. You and John Outterbridge-- Uh-oh.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh, I'm sorry. Did I hit your foot?
RIDDLE: I was moving it when I felt it coming. That's
MASON: You and John Outterbridge collaborated on a
project for a doctor's office in Compton. Is that
MASON: Could you talk about that, how that came about and
what you did for it?
RIDDLE: Well, it was basically just an outgrowth of John
and I. We had an affinity for material and content. We
both liked social commentary. We both liked making stuff
out of discarded material, so we had that in common. We
used to always go out on forays into secondhand stores,
junkyards, anyplace where we might find material. It was
almost like we were prospectors for art material. And out
of that we were given a commission by a veterinarian and
a-- That husband was a veterinarian, and the wife was a
pediatrician. They had a real big doctor's office that
they had just built, and they wanted art. So we
collaborated on some murals and things. We were good
friends, so it was very easy. Plus, it goes back to the
African tradition too, in my mind, that artists don't work
as individuals. They work in a collaborative. Whether
it's building drums or carving totems or any other
artifacts or stamping cloth designs, it was a group
activity rather than an isolated individual activity. So
I always felt that was part of what artists should do.
It's just a Western concept of individualism that lures us
away from that.
MASON: Yeah. Do they still exist--do you know--the
RIDDLE: I never went back to look, because I think art is
like-- Nothing is permanent in the world, so art shouldn't
be considered as permanent either. It might last four
hundred years, a thousand years, two thousand years, or as
old as cave paintings. But, eventually, there won't be
any. So I never think of it like that. I mean, if you
put some murals on a wall, you know that wall isn't going
to stay up forever. When the wall goes, the art goes.
That's just the way it is.
RIDDLE: It's temporary. Long-term temporary.
CARMEN RIDDLE: You did those murals at BCN and they got
RIDDLE: That's true.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Beautiful murals.
RIDDLE: Black Christian Nationalist Church.
MASON: Oh, yeah. You mentioned that.
RIDDLE: In reference to Albert Cleage. I spent a year of
my life in there.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He was up there endangering his life,
putting the most beautiful murals up there. And how long
was it before they painted white over it?
RIDDLE: Actually, they lowered the ceiling.
MASON: Oh, right. Yeah.
RIDDLE: They had an old-fashioned theater ceiling. And
they put in a suspended acoustical ceiling, and the
ceiling was lower than the mural. They're still up there,
but they're up above the ceiling.
MASON: Yeah, I think you mentioned that the other artist
who worked went and got his. They were done on panels or
RIDDLE: He did his on four-by-eight panels. I could have
done that, but I felt it was much more exotic just to prep
the walls and paint on the walls like Michelangelo.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Then he got out of the church, so they
didn't feel as warmly towards him.
RIDDLE: Well, the murals lasted a long time. They lasted
five or six years after I left the church. But I painted
a black ankh on the front of the church and it's still
there. Every time I see it, I remember how terrified I
was on a little one-foot-wide scaffold at about forty feet
off the ground. I had to paint fast and get off of that.
MASON: What was the subject of the--?
RIDDLE: That was seventeen years ago, because our son
[Diallo Amir Riddle] will be eighteen in June and he
wasn't born yet. So that was a long time ago.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He was first baby of the nation, and he
was first artist of the nation. And then when we got out,
those things were painted over. Our family was destroyed
by it, because we saw him put his heart and soul into
those murals. They were the most gorgeous murals. They
had a tour of Atlanta where busloads of people came to see
these murals. Then when we got out, they painted over
them. And it was sad, because they'll never find any art
that beautiful. It was like the Sistine Chapel, really.
RIDDLE: Well, I still feel that--
CARMEN RIDDLE: Magnificent art.
RIDDLE: I feel that art is temporary, even though it can
last a long time. On the scale of the time that the
planets have been here, it's temporary. So it stays as
long as it can, then it's gone.
MASON: Yeah. What was the subject of the doctor's
RIDDLE: You know, at this point I don't even remember. I
remember that Bridge and I were having-- I was teaching
ceramics at Beverly Hills [High School] , so we felt that
we should use available material-- I had access to the
classroom on the weekends-- I remember we laid out eight
by sixteen feet of clay, and we didn't know what to do
with it. So then I remember we were talking very
abstractly about, "What are we going to do with all this
clay?" And I said, "Well, let's just fill the--" I
remember Bridge and I were talking, and we said, "Well,
let's try to communicate with the ancestors." And we just
said that kind of as a-- And it was really amazing,
because it's kind of hazy now. But I remember there was
kind of like a communication with the Caribbean. It
sounds corny now. But we were talking; we were just both
doing it. And then we realized after we talked about it
that we had gone through the Caribbean and back across the
Atlantic Ocean to Africa. So that's the only thing I
really remember about the project was that that was the
highlight, that we had felt we had made communication with
MASON: Yeah, like a reverse middle passage.
RIDDLE: But as far as what the subject matter was, I
don ' t remember .
CARMEN RIDDLE: He and Bridge loved working together,
though, because they're both Pisces and they're both
artists and they're just about the same age.
RIDDLE: Yeah, he's one year older than me.
CARMEN RIDDLE: They just really merged as compatible
RIDDLE: And then we used to — Like I said, the forays
with Bridge, going to look for material-- I mean, he would
be looking for a totally different thing than I would.
And he had places that he went habitually to look that I
had never been to before; and I had been, conversely, to
places he had never been. So by cross-referencing our
sources-- And we'd always take-- "How much are we going to
spend today?" "Twenty bucks." And we'd have these limits
to make sure we just didn't overload with junk, buy up
everything. So we became selective. I remember going
with Bridge was a lot of fun, because the creative juice
started when I would be going to his house or he would be
coming to mine. Then it continued as we went to a place,
talking about art and social events that were happening
and then actually getting to a place. And then you have
like these pre-programmed ideas in your head-- Kind of
like you don't know what you're looking for, but you know
if you see it. It's going to strike a bell with some
piece you're working on, some piece that needs some
material to fit the concept that's just in your head and
hasn't even gotten out yet. It was just a very nice
thing. We used to do that, and that worked right up
through when Bridge opened the Communicative Arts Academy.
We used to consult on that, and I was on this board. That
was a lot of fun, because it was very spontaneous. We
always had like a spontaneous relationship anyway. So
MASON: What about Tony Hill?
RIDDLE: Well, he died.
RIDDLE: I mean, as soon as I met Tony he died.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He was one of the older guys.
RIDDLE: He had a heart attack.
CARMEN RIDDLE: My mother's friends knew him because he
used to do ceramics for their houses. He was more of a
commercial -like artist.
MASON: Yeah. He had this big business where he sold
CARMEN RIDDLE: It wasn't real big. It was just a small
MASON: Well, but he made a lot of money, though.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Well, no. Not really.
RIDDLE: Well, he supported himself.
RIDDLE: I mean, it wasn't like--
CARMEN RIDDLE: The people that knew him would support
him, you know? He was the person they would go get to
make a lamp or a vase or something, because he was a
social friend, too.
RIDDLE: And he had a showroom with lamps and bowls and
vessels and things.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He probably didn't make as much as he
RIDDLE: But he had the techniques: casting from slip,
glazes, firing techniques. But he didn't have a mass
production situation, because his studio was in a wooden-
frame, one-story house with a garage and some outdoor
covered facilities behind his house. We had talked
about--When I told him I might go to Atlanta and there was
a big boomtown hotel kind of thing here-- When I got here
I saw that. And, you know, we discussed about, "Man,
there's no black vendors supplying these hotel rooms,
hundreds of hotel rooms. They all got lamps; they all
have planters in the lobby. We could probably crack into
that concept, the minority joint venture." I said, "Look,
we've got to have lamps. Well, you're not buying any
lamps from black folks. You're not buying any prints from
black folks to be on your walls. You're not letting black
framers frame some of these thousands and thousands of
pictures in these hundreds and hundreds of rooms. Give us
10 percent of the action," which we thought we'd get rich.
Then he went to Egypt, and then somebody wrote me and told
me he died. So that was just an idea that never brought
any financial fruition, but it was a good idea at the
MASON: Yeah. Do you know some people who might have some
of his lamps?
CARMEN RIDDLE: They're probably dead and gone, too. In
Los Angeles- -
RIDDLE: I just remember where his living room was was his
MASON: Where did he live? Did he live with Mel [Melvin]
Edwards or live near Mel Edwards or something?
RIDDLE: No, Mel lived just below Vernon [Avenue West] on
either Arlington [Avenue] or Van Ness [Avenue South] or
one of those streets.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He lives on Washington [Boulevard] or Pico
RIDDLE: Tony was on either Jefferson [Boulevard] or
Exposition [Boulevard] .
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah, out there by Culver City.
RIDDLE: Yeah, between Crenshaw [Boulevard] and La Brea
[Boulevard] . But it was either on Exposition or
Jefferson. I think it was Jefferson.
CARMEN RIDDLE: It was just a little place.
RIDDLE: It was just a house, and his front room was his
showroom. Mel lived in an apartment over a storefront
just below whatever street it is this side, one block
east, of Arlington at Vernon. He lived down there.
RIDDLE: I think, probably, the other two black artists I
liked best-- Well, no, I can't say "liked," but whose art
was the most influential, I'd say were being around Noah
Purifoy and David Hammons.
RIDDLE: And Ruth [G.] Waddy and Dan Concholar. They were
like artists, but they were also like good friends. They
were all very active as artists, and we always shared
stuff. We always talked about art, criticized each
other's work- -that kind of thing. Alonzo Davis was
influential, too, because he had a space that artists
would come together and talk and communicate and argue.
RIDDLE: We'd always try to tell each other that art
wasn't worth anything. I mean, it was a serious, honest
evaluation. "I don't like that. You need to change that
part." If you had the courage to go, it was good for you.
MASON: Yeah, yeah. Would you say there was kind of an
avant-garde at some point?
RIDDLE: Amongst us?
RIDDLE: Well, I think more than an avant-garde. I saw it
more as a competition. But it wasn't a cutthroat
competition. It was the kind of a situation that
encouraged you to do the best you could, because you knew
people that you respected as artists and you liked as
friends were going to see your work. Therefore you
couldn't be dillydallying. You had to push your own edges
forward. If it crossed into avant-garde, so be it. But
you had to push your own style of expression, because you
wanted to be-- You didn't want-- I guess just because you
knew all your friends were doing it.
I mean, one time David Hammons-- Everybody went to an
art show, and he didn't go. And everybody said, "How come
you didn't go to the art show, man? Where were you?
Where were you?" And David said, "I knew all the black
artists in Los Angeles were going to be at that art show.
And I knew if I stayed home, I would be the only black
artist in Los Angeles doing art." So I mean, it was that
kind of a thing. It was humorous. I remember one time
there was a big art show and I didn't go, and I tried
that. And there was a definite feeling that you got
knowing all your friends were at the art show chitchatting
and lollygagging, and you were home pushing your
experience. You was getting a jump on them. It was a
funny feeling just to do that just for that.
RIDDLE: So we were friends and we were artists, and we
liked each other and we hung out together. And that's
CARMEN RIDDLE: Plus, they had families.
RIDDLE: And they all had families.
CARMEN RIDDLE: They'd all hang out together. We had
picnics and parties and they would do art and bring a
glass of wine and then they'd have art shows. All these
same people would be in the art shows and talk about the
people who came to critique and talk about the people who
came to buy and talk about Aurelia [Brooks] and all the
CARMEN RIDDLE: They had so much in common, because they
were-- Why? I don't know why. Because they all came
from different places. But they just had a--
RIDDLE: But we all came together around the Watts riot.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah.
RIDDLE: I mean, that was like the coalescence point.
Because there was like this need, but it was kind of like
an intuitive need to make some expression out of the
Watts riot. And that first show in Watts at--I can't
even think of the name of that park- -Will Rogers Park, in
the gym, the first annual Watts arts festival [Summer
Festival Art]-- And all of a sudden, here are all these
people who had collected debris and junk. We were
basically all assemblage people, transference of-- We
used to call it taking discarded social artif acts--things
that had been originally created for use in this society
but not intended as art--modifying them and reassembling
them as symbols to depict what we were trying to say. I
mean, that was Noah, that was David and, to some extent,
Dan, because he was more of a painter. But definitely
Noah. And all these people and a host of other people
just all come together with the same ideas. Then out of
that initial coming together, there were bonds made that
to this day, if we got on a conference call, we'd all
start laughing about. Because nobody really had bad
feelings about it; it was a good time.
CARMEN RIDDLE: They had to stick together because the
white critics would say it wasn't really art. They said,
"It wasn't really art. They were just angry people."
RIDDLE: They always used to attack anybody who did the
American eagle's claws dripping with blood. But the
thing that I found about the critics, that I liked about
the white critics, was that if they panned you or
applauded you, it took energy. They had to use time out
of their life to say your art stunk or your art was good.
But if they didn't, if they were indifferent and didn't
write about you, that was the worst. It didn't matter if
they said you were good or bad. But if they didn't see
your art, that meant something was wrong with your art.
Your art didn't have the ability-- Like one guy said in
that group, "Art should be able to snatch your attention
for a split second, at least." If you're at an art show,
you'll have to look and say, "Wow I" Then you may
discount it, but it should, at least for a split second,
be able to grab your attention and hopefully pull you
into it and make you deal with it.
RIDDLE: And so that was like a fundamental premise in
all our art, that you had to have someplace in that art
that was-- Color, composition, whatever-- Something had
to put you into that art. And then if you drifted on out
of it, that was cool. But if you didn't even see it, I
mean, that was a sad state.
We used to talk about the critics. We'd get
together over at somebody ' s house and break out the
paisano, and everybody would just sit around- -no art,
except art that might be hanging in somebody's house--and
just discuss these matters.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Betye Saar and —
RIDDLE: Lots of people. There was probably about-- I
had a picture in one of those rooms.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Timmy?
RIDDLE: Uh-huh, Tim [Timothy] Washington.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Washington.
RIDDLE: We had lots of guys and lots of ladies. Suzanne
Jackson, Samella [Lewis], Ruth. I mean, there were a lot
of people involved .
MASON: Do you think there would have been a difference
if there had been black critics, meaning black people who
had sort of an art historical background, but who maybe
weren't a part of the group and who may be outside?
CARMEN RIDDLE: The black critics were-- Like Samella,
she wrote books .
MASON: But she was part of the group, though.
RIDDLE: Well, but even--
CARMEN RIDDLE: Not really. She was supposed to be an
RIDDLE: She did art, but she was a lesser artist.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Now she does more art than she did then.
Now, Ruth wasn't an artist. She started very late, very
late in life.
RIDDLE: Printmaking and woodcuts and stuff. But I think
the difference I saw between the black critics and the
white critics was that the black critics--they approached
since they were-- It was like they had a better sense of
the visual language just because they were black. White
critics needed subtitles sometimes, but the black
critics, they spoke the language. So, to me, the black
critics-- It was, "Do they have an understanding of what
you're doing? Can they look at the symbols of what
you ' re saying and expressing and see it in the context of
the black experience?" Where white people, as critics,
didn't always have--
CARMEN RIDDLE: Who were the black critics then?
RIDDLE: Well, there were some. I mean, it's hard to say
CARMEN RIDDLE: I don't remember any.
RIDDLE: It's been so long ago, but there were some.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Just like most of the people buying the
art were white.
RIDDLE: Just like there's some now.
CARMEN RIDDLE: They were white people buying art.
RIDDLE: At the very beginning, when art was real cheap.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah, that's what you're talking about.
RIDDLE: No, but I mean--
CARMEN RIDDLE: That's right. When they had the Watts
festival, all the white people came out there and they
were buying art. They were the ones who were into art,
for the most part. The white galleries on La Cienega
were the ones showing black art, except for Brockman
RIDDLE: Well, that came after, though. That was
probably three or four years after the Watts festival.
RIDDLE: But that's like-- [William] Pajaud [Jr.] always
teases me about selling that picture to that lady north
on Canon. He said the white lady wanted to pay $400 and
the black lady wanted to pay $90, because she said it
reminded her of her mother- -because she went out every
day to do maid service in Beverly Hills.
CARMEN RIDDLE: And he was so happy that a black person
wanted art that he practically gave it to her. Because
to this day, most black people think that you just buy
something in Rich's [Department Store].
RIDDLE: Art is a luxury.
CARMEN RIDDLE: You don't know about Rich's. But just in
a store is the same as buying art. They haven't really
gotten into art as much as the whites have, and that's
RIDDLE: But there were-- Carmen's right about that. I
think there are more black people interested in art now
I think that there are a lot more black buyers, but
they don't-- Well, it's like that article right there
that we just read today about the invisible artists. I
mean, that's what it's about. And they speak to the
living artists and the dead artists, mostly all male
artists, too, by the way. [Henry O.] Tanner, [Romare]
Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and people--they ' re just now
becoming uninvisible. So the artists that are up
underneath them like me, and other people-- I mean, if
they're invisible, we don't exist.
RIDDLE: But it's improved, because there's a lot more
people who buy black art. But there are a lot of black
people who bought art then. I think the black art focus
has changed from social commentary then to genre art now.
Which is like black people now that buy art and spend
money- -in my opinion- -for art that has non-social
commentary subject matter.
MASON: You mean non-confrontational?
RIDDLE: Yeah. Now it's more like people sitting on the
porch whittling, the older lady having her hair done by
two generations, like grandmother, granddaughter combing
MASON: African women with babies on their back,
CARMEN RIDDLE: But Jacob Lawrence did that kind, too,
though. It's just not as good art. I don't think
they're as well-versed on art. But then, people buy what
RIDDLE: Well, Jacob, he's still basically a social-
commentary artist, and John Biggers is probably a mixture
of social commentary and excellent craftsmanship. But
you look at the Paul Goodnights and the artists that
right now are really making the money, the William
Tollivers and the people like that. I mean, they do good
art, but it's like "Nubian Queen" or "Black Woman with
Lillies" you know. Something that you go home and it's
peaceful and it doesn't--
CARMEN RIDDLE: Charles White.
RIDDLE: Yeah, Charles White was like-- But Charles White
was a crossover, too, because you might see Charles White
do Harriet Tubman like he did her big strong, as big as
Arnold Schwarzenegger- -
MASON: Like the one at the Golden State [Mutual Life
Insurance Company] .
RIDDLE: Because of her power. Yeah. So he had like
social commentary mixed in kind of like Riggers in my
mind. It's clothed in a beautifully done, natural
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah, that's what--
RIDDLE: And then these materials, they're hidden as
subsurface things. You buy it because it's so-- You're
attracted because it's so beautifully done. And then it
may be later on at the secondary or third level that you
realize that he has put a very social, powerful message
in on top of it. But it's kind of done subtly. I used
to think that was the way to do slave ships and
everything else, is to paint this magnificent ship on the
high seas at full sail. But then very subtly maybe have
symbols of the middle passage. If the sails were white,
a slightly off white. Images of anguish that are bound
in the hull of this ship that you can't see. But you buy
it because you say, "What a beautiful ship." Until you
get home and about two weeks later you realize it's a
ship full of slaves. Whereas if you just put the slaves
hanging over the side of the boat as the wretched of the
earth, some people wouldn't buy it. So it's kind of an
CARMEN RIDDLE: When he had this show with [Manuel]
Noriega, that guy said-- He had all these pieces like
RIDDLE: Saddam Hussein.
CARMEN RIDDLE: And the white guy said, "This guy's
really a hostile person." He was looking at his art.
But yet he didn't hide it like in that time. He didn't
hide it in that show.
RIDDLE: It's just, basically, Noriega went to jail.
There's a whole picture of all the people like Ollie
[Oliver] North and them all up there lying.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Yeah, most people wouldn't buy anything
like that because they don't want to be reminded.
RIDDLE: The real deal in Central America is the United
States was involved in drug peddling. And one of these
things you had asked about was John Hall's ranch, and
John Hall's ranch in Costa Rica was where--
MASON: No, I didn't ask about that.
RIDDLE: Oh, it's on [the list of questions]. He has a
MASON: He must have just mentioned it, because I don't
RIDDLE: But his ranch was where the American planes,
after they took arms to the Contras, they loaded up with
cocaine and brought it back to south Florida, to
Homestead Air Force Base. They caught that guy, [Eugene]
Hasenf us . I mean, they shot him down. He didn't get
killed. And when they brought him out of the jungle, he
said-- I mean, I was looking at the television, looking
right at him when he said it, so I know I didn't make it
up. He said, "Well, why should we bring back empty
planes? Of course, we bring back cocaine." Then all of
a sudden Hasenf us just kind of faded out and disappeared.
And to this day he never went on trial; he never-- You
know, I saw him on 60 Minutes about nine months ago.
But, I mean, he had damaging testimony. They put it all
You know, it's like there's so much American
collusion in the drug trade that it's pathetic. But the
drug trade destroys the black community. It's a greater
oppressor than any kind of military force or police force
that could come in. Because it's got black people abusing
drugs, so that puts them off, and black people killing for
drugs, so that puts them off. Black babies and young
children of the next generation [are] the victims of their
parents being drug abusers and drug users, whether they're
orphaned by it or whether they're born with birth defects
by it. It's a way to destroy the black community. It's
part of what I consider the genocide, and it's for making
profit for people at the top. It keeps hatred and
hostility going with people at this level where I have to
survive, where my wife has to survive.
It makes me worry every time my son goes out the door
to go to school or to work that somebody will hijack him
for his 1984 Honda. It's dangerous out there. In the
days of the Black Panther Party, you couldn't buy guns.
But now, in these days of this century, when you want to
buy guns to kill other black folk, you can get all the
guns you want. But when it was "get whitey, " you couldn't
buy guns. Now you can get street sweepers, uzis, grenade
launchers. Anything you want, they'll sell it to you, as
long as you're killing somebody in the city.
MASON: Yeah, like--what's his name?--David Koresh had
that whole arsenal down there, so god knows you can get
anything. But how can art address that since it's--? I
mean, you can address that in the image, but it's
essentially a private image that exists in a private
space, or-- Yeah, a private space, like a home or a
RIDDLE: I see it as a dilemma, because if I do the art
that I feel passionate about-- And I think any artist in
any phase of art- -visual art, performing art, literary
art, any art--I think that the mixture of your creativity
and your passion are probably two of the essential
ingredients in the art that you produce. If I still feel
strong about these social issues-- To me, if I try to
paint flowers in a vase because I need the money and I
know somebody might buy flowers painted nicely in a vase,
that's like going to Sears [Roebuck and Company] for a
second job, you know, to get money. It's not exciting; it
doesn't have enthusiasm.
But if I can depict that racist traffic court I was
in this last week with my son, maybe nobody will buy it,
but it will defuse my hostility for the racism I saw in
that man's court--just blatant racism disguised as traffic
court justice. I mean, I was so mad it disorientated me.
I couldn't tell left from right when I left out of there.
The next day I thought about it. It had at least subsided
in my anger to a headache. By the third day, I realized
the only way I could get it out of my system was to do a
piece of art about this court. So in my head I've already
done it. And in my notes I took, I've already done it.
Now what remains is whether or not I'll do it physically.
And nobody's going to buy it, but that doesn't mean that
it doesn't need to be done.
MASON: Yeah. Sounds like a topic for a performance
piece, something that you could sort of do spontaneously
and you work through something. But I don't know if
you're interested in performance.
RIDDLE: I didn't realize how much I saw, because that
itself was a performance. I didn't realize just sitting
there that--like I told my wife [Carmen Garrott Riddle] --
the American flag was there, but the Confederate flag,
the Georgia flag with the Confederate part, it was gone.
It was just an empty flagpole on the other side of the
judge. Yet the judge said he had been there thirty-one
years at one time, and all this stuff he was saying.
"I've been here thirty-one years. You can't tell me them
stories. I've done heard everything." And I thought,
that's like-- You know how they always say so many years
BC. And I was thinking BC stood for "court before, " the
before court. That was when, I thought, that was before
blacks were on the Georgia state patrol; that was before
blacks were in abundance in the police department here.
It was before-- And I thought of all the other things
And then I saw that judge as a harlequin clown
presiding over a circus, and the tightrope he was walking
on was the Confederate flag, you know, twisted up into a
rope. This friend of mine, he works in Corrections here
in Atlanta--he takes prisoners to different work sites--
and he said that man is a known alcoholic. See, I didn't
know that equation. Then I pictured it in my picture.
He's not only a tightrope walker in this racist circus,
but he's also going to be a juggler juggling some liquor
bottles. And then maybe I'll get some satisfaction out
of-- Whether anybody buys the piece or not, it will be my
artistic diary of that day in that terrible court that was
called a court. Because it was really bad.
So, to me, that's where my artistic passion still is.
That's probably when I first met Noah [Purifoy] and all
these people. That was my overriding passion then as the
contradiction between what's supposed to be and what is.
I guess you could sum it up, like my wife says: it's an
injustice. It's a one-word summary. But Malcolm [X] said
it, too, because he said he doesn't see democracy, he sees
hypocrisy. That's what we live in, in a hypocrisy. You
see like, if my wife did art, maybe her passion would--
She doesn't understand how the Haitians can be denied.
CARMEN RIDDLE: No, I see something worse than that.
CARMEN RIDDLE: When you live in a place where you go in
the grocery store or anything up here, and these men hang
out all day and they harass women and sell drugs in our
neighborhood and everything-- And nobody does anything
about it. And the kids see that. I just think it's awful
that we let those men in our race and our culture live in
our neighborhood like that. Why doesn't someone do
something about it? I don't understand how that can be.
If I could do anything, I would clean up the neighborhoods
so that the kids who live in the projects wouldn't have to
see all the drugs and killings and all that they have to
see. Someone should be taking [care of] our kids,
MASON: Yeah. Well, I guess the problem is still
CARMEN RIDDLE: We'll build some more jails. But they
just take them in and put them back out, and they're up
here at the corner. They will talk to anybody, sell drugs
to anybody, and no one does anything about it.
MASON: Yeah, the only effective thing I've ever heard
about getting drugs out of projects is when the Black
Muslims come in and stand--
CARMEN RIDDLE: That's right.
RIDDLE: Because they get the respect and the fear.
CARMEN RIDDLE: That's right. And the men stand up for
the neighborhood. The men get together and they won't let
that go on.
MASON: Yeah. Whether they're armed or not, they just
CARMEN RIDDLE: That's right.
RIDDLE: Basically, they're unarmed. But I just read-- I
just finished a book. This Side of Glory I think is the
name of it. But it's David Milliard's account of the
history of the Black Panther Party. And there's a point
he drew in there to the days of the Black Panther Party,
the sixties and the seventies, where [there was] community
anger and community action and community gathering to
improve neighborhoods. In contrast to after he'd been in
prison, gotten out, cleaned himself up from his drug
addiction and alcohol abuse, how the young guys that were
Panthers when he was coming up were now the young guys who
were the dope dealers who wore the gold, had the fancy
cars, had a pocket full of cash, will kill you for
virtually no reason at all. They had gone from concepts
of group pressure to abject individual material
gratification. I mean, just anything was permissible, as
long as you had the $200 Nikes.
MASON: This was during the [Ronald W.] Reagan years.
RIDDLE: Yeah. I mean, people don't realize that crack
cocaine, which is the most addictive of all the drugs that
have been out there- -all that flourished under Reagan. He
had drug czars. I mean, that's so much bull that "We're
doing something about narcotics." Yeah, they were. They
were opening it up where all the narcotics that could be
got could get into this country.
And like Carmen says-- And you mentioned about more
jails to me. Another piece of art that I haven't done is--
When you take real time and consideration [of the
industry] of the criminal justice system in America, and
you begin to plug in all the people who make legitimate,
honest, respectable livings off it: judges, lawyers,
bailiffs, architects, planners, manufacturers-- And not
even at these high levels: administrators, social
workers. All the people that are dependent upon crime for
their living-- Insurance companies because they get to
sell two TVs, one for the one that got stolen, and one
because you're insured. The same with cars. Any material
stuff that gets stolen is replaced if you've got
insurance- So that's good for the manufacturers of the
stolen items, because it increases the purchasing of goods
And you consider that black men-- The statistic, last
I heard, is $32,000 a year to incarcerate somebody. One-
fourth of all the black males between the age of, say,
late teens to twenty- five are involved in some phase, from
parole and probation to waiting trial or being
incarcerated. You know, all of this. If crime
disappeared tomorrow, we'd have a much greater collapse of
the economy than we [have] trying to shift from the cold
war to what we're in right now: closing bases, reducing
army, cutting down on military spending. I mean, we're
catching a hard economic shot at America just from that.
But if there was no crime, all of those people that make
big money who are sharing that $32,000 of inmate times a
couple of million people probably- -where would that money
go? That money would be gone.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Well, why don't we, as black people, help
RIDDLE: Because we're neurotic.
CARMEN RIDDLE: If someone comes and offers me drugs, I'm
not going to take it.
RIDDLE: Well, you're not as neurotic as the average black
CARMEN RIDDLE: I'm not going to buy it. I'm not going to
sell it. I say we're to blame.
RIDDLE: Sure, it's our fault.
CARMEN RIDDLE: We have to bring up our children so that
they don't think like this and get rid of the bad people
in our neighborhood. I think we have to do it, because
nobody's going to care about us but us. We have to take
care of our own.
RIDDLE: Well, I agree with that.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Just like people who come from other
countries. They love this country. They come here and
get a job washing dishes, doing anything they can, and
they send their kids to college and they make it. I
realize we came from slavery. That's the main thing;
that's the thing that holds us down. But we've got to
stop thinking like that and help our own people. Get rid
of those bums up there, bring our children up right, even
sacrifice having a new car or having a new house or
something to take care of your children so that they can
turn out to be good people.
RIDDLE: Well, I agree with that, too. But, again, it's
like, to me, our neurosis is so deep as a race of people
and we're so unorganized to the challenge that she just
brought up-- Why do we put our own children down if they
try to do well in school? I mean, you've got black kids
who are closet scholars. They go home and study like the
dickens, but when they get to school, they try to act like
their peers, because it's an embarrassment to be an A
student. The expression is "Man, you're trying to be
white 1" But we condemn excellence in our own race.
TAPE NUMBER: IV, SIDE TWO
JUNE 26, 1993
RIDDLE: I was just saying, though, that we perpetuate —
I'll give you a good example. They showed a thing on TV.
This commercial ran four or five times and disappeared.
They said, "If Olympic medals were given out for killing,
the bronze would go to the skinheads." And they showed
some skinheads, and then they had a statistic like
annually they're responsible for about five hundred deaths
a year. And it said, "The silver would go--" And it
showed a guy in a hood or the Mafia or somebody. And they
said, "They kill 10 percent more. They kill about--" One
was three or four hundred, one was three or four thousand.
They said, "But the gold would go--" And they showed,
like, brothers standing out there with gold teeth and gold
around their necks and muscles and crip and brim
paraphernalia, making signs. And it showed we killed
thirteen thousand. It started in Detroit. They ran that
commercial. People in Detroit got mad and said it was a
racist commercial and it was exploitive. But it was true!
We kill more people of our own color, ourselves, than the
Klan could ever kill. You'd have to see thirty brothers a
day hanging from trees around the country for the Klan to
match what we do in our own neighborhoods amongst
ourselves. That's just the people we kill, not the ones
that are ruined for life because of drug and alcohol
addiction. Or the fact that black male life expectancy in
America is shorter than white women, white men, black
women. And under Reagan, we actually declined down from
seventy-one down into sixty-nine plus. See, I mean,
that's real to me. It's like Carmen said, a lot of it is
our own doing on each other and on ourselves. But Frances
[Cress] Welsing said at one time on Tony Brown's Journal,
years ago, "The greatest mental problem in America is
black people." We're a bunch of neurotic people, and we
blame other people for our problems, which gives us an
excuse, in our own minds, to perpetuate the negativity in
ourselves rather than to say, like you have to do when you
go to AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] or Drugs Anonymous--
First, you've got to admit that you've got a problem.
"Something's wrong with me." And then you can begin to
clean it up. But as long as you defer what's wrong with
you to the white man, to an unfair society, to this and
that, to all those excuses, that allows you to wallow in
your own negative juices until you just boil away. And I
understand all that.
The reason I got into art--into this kind of art--was
because I felt that-- Somebody said, Bobby Seale or
somebody said, "The importance of raising black
consciousness--" That's what the black social
consciousness movement was about, black nationalism, black
this, black that, black is beautiful. All of that's about
raising black consciousness out of this stew of
negativism. So to me, if black people-- If I can help
that one iota by letting my black art be about the things
that I see that are very wrong in this system, then I'll
paint a picture, eventually, called "The Party." And at
that party are going to be all the people, the judges, the
bailiffs, the designers, planners, all those people I said
that are involved in the criminal justice system. They're
all going to be drinking cocktails and standing around
chitchatting, and all the waiters will be in prison suits.
MASON: That would be a great one.
RIDDLE: I mean, I've already got it in my head. Maybe
nobody will buy it.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He's a current event artist, because he's
a news fanatic. And every day he gets ideas for different
stuff- If he could do it, he'd probably do current events
every single day.
RIDDLE: Uh-huh. I used to think about where do you stop
on the line between editorial cartooning and fine art.
Because you have to take the essence of editorial cartoon,
but you have to, to me, transfer it over into color and
composition and symbolism arrangement that makes it fine
art. And you try not to editorialize, but you're trying
to let people know, I mean, for instance, one day we were
talking about the middle passage, which is one of my
favorite subjects. But people may not want it on their
walls. But I think if they could go down with those
vacuums-- They look for lost coins from the Spanish
Armadas and all of that, and they find these treasures.
If they went down with one of those vacuums and vacuumed
the path from Goree Island to the Western Hemisphere,
there's probably a twenty-mile-wide trail of bones that
are just from all the people that jumped, fell, died, and
were thrown overboard between Africa and the United
States. One guy, we were talking about it one day, he
said, "Yeah, I can just see those bones like cross ties on
a railroad track." But there must be-- They said that the
sharks followed the slave ships from Goree Island all the
way to the United States, to Central America, to the
Caribbean, wherever the route actually was, because there
was always food because they were always throwing black
folk over. And the ship would carry an average of 134
people. About 10 to 15 percent of the cargo would die.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Did you see his ship in the Golden State
[Mutual Life Insurance Company collection]?
MASON: I probably did, but that was so long ago.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh, that's so great. Great. Have you
seen that collection?
MASON: Yeah, but it was when I first got out here, like
RIDDLE: I think Bill [Cosby Jr.] took that.
CARMEN RIDDLE: What?
RIDDLE: Bill said something about he had that at this
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh, really?
MASON: Yeah, there were some things he kept.
RIDDLE: He made a trade.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Oh, because that ship he did was
fantastic. Don't you have any pictures of that ship?
RIDDLE: This one day a guy sold me a thousand springs,
little springs about this big around, about that tall,
about as big around as your thumb. And I said, "I'm going
to make these into people and pack them into the bottom of
this hull of a ship."
CARMEN RIDDLE: That was fantastic. How big was it?
RIDDLE: That was in my coffee-table art days. See, I
said if you could sell art the size of people's coffee
tables, they'll buy it.
CARMEN RIDDLE: He did some good art, really good art.
RIDDLE: So that was the middle [passage]. That's when I
first started liking — I've always been fascinated by the
middle passage. Because in grammar school, they always
talked about the explorers, and they always talked about
the old sailing ships and how there was always like scurvy
and beriberi. And they named all these old-time, maritime
diseases that came about because there wasn't adequate
refrigeration on ships in those days. And people had to
eat petrified meat and biscuits with weevils in them. I
mean, they painted this horrible picture. They didn't
have fresh water. The conditions were bad and people
died. And then you think about in those same days, in
those same conditions, back in the 1600s, black folk were
packed in ships. And they show you those diagrams where
they pack them like sardines to get the maximum amount of
cargo to offset the death and the travel. And you think,
"Did they die of scurvy? Did they die of beriberi?" I
mean, they couldn't even come up on deck. At least the
sailors got to be up on deck and breathe fresh air, and
they had to breathe, you know-- And how many millions of
people died, and how many millions of ideas, and how much
creativity, and how much of the future of the planet is on
the bottom of the ocean. Because all it was was slave
cargo; it wasn't thinking people.
Then when you transfer that up into the Statue of
Liberty, still thinking about those ships, and here come
all these crackers- -excuse me for saying that--all these
Europeans. I'll be nicer about it. And "Send us your
huddled masses." Well, they had twelve million black
people still sitting around, disenfranchised from the
Civil War. They could have brought those people to
Detroit at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and
used their brains in manufacturing and design. We
wouldn't have a problem right now. But instead, they went
and got twelve million more white people and they brought
trade unionism with them. And they didn't let blacks in
the trade union. So all of a sudden now, the people who
built the country can't be plumbers, can't be carpenters,
can't be brick masons, can't be any of the builders that
they were originally brought over here to do, and they did
a good job.
That's why they showed, last night, black folk
raising hell on those construction sites in Los Angeles
after this most recent riot or revolution or uprising--
whatever you want to call it. They refused to let
Mexicans and Orientals and white people come in and
rebuild our community. They said, "If blacks don't work,
nobody works." White folks are getting all upset. Well,
why should they get to come in and build? Let the black
folk get the money to build it up. Like one guy said,
they'll have more respect for the property because they'll
know they built it and they'll have better living
conditions for a few years and they'll increase their
skill levels. I mean, the last time we had full
employment was slavery. See, and I can't put that out of
my mind to paint rosy pictures. I mean, I could, but I
don't want to.
MASON: Well, you worked with kids for a while in Los
Angeles and also here. How did your ideas come out in
your teaching and working with children?
RIDDLE: Well, as an artist, you know-- One thing good
about being an artist that I've found over the years is
that you're involved in problem solving, even if it's
where does red and blue and green go on a picture- I
mean, it's still constantly making decisions, trying to--
If it's manipulative art, like physical pieces, what goes
here? There? What comes over here? The relationship
between the objects. I mean, you're dealing with that all
the time. So when you're dealing with kids, they're —
Youth is hope. So youth is optimism from birth and an
early understanding-- You look into little kid's eyes,
little babies' eyes. They've got perfectly white--and
perfectly dark pupils around that white. Big, shiny eyes.
They're not full of any kind of bitterness. They
represent the optimum opportunity for evolution to the
highest level they can acquire. And somewhere along the
way, we begin to erode that and destroy that and turn them
into pessimistic people, like I may be right now. So you
can't afford to deal with that with young people. Because
if they're going to get influenced by it, it will happen
anyway, but it shouldn't be your fault. So you should
then deal with them with enthusiasm, with hope, with- -as
corny as it sounds-- Jesse [L.] Jackson's "You are
somebody. " You instill in them the confidence that they
can be whatever they want to be if they'll understand that
nothing that you ever achieve, that is worthwhile, comes
without hard work [and] sacrifice. There's certain
formulas that you have to concoct and master before you
can be successful. Success, if it was easy, everybody
would be successful. But everybody has the potential for
success. But when you run into these hurdles,
distractions, roadblocks, things that would deflect you
off into a more negative state, at that point you need to
be aware that it's coming and be prepared to deal with it
so that you can get past that and get a little bit further
in your evolution to the betterment of yourself. So you
inculcate a philosophy of enthusiasm, of enjoying life, of
not to be distracted.
That you get to a certain age and you go from a non-
sexual person to a person who's considering having to deal
with the impulses and energies of sex and love and all
that--a different kind of love than hugging a [stuffed]
bunny, which is love-- But the bunny doesn't even give
love back, when you think about it, because it's an
inanimate object. But yet you give so much love to that
little fuzzy animal when you're a kid that there's an
inference that that little fuzzy animal is giving love
back to you, because it's unconditional love from you. So
you try to keep unconditional love intact while you're
instilling other principles of confidence and things so
that person can build a stronger foundation.
So in school teaching, the material you teach is just
a vehicle to try to put those concrete concepts into a
person. You take their guard down with a piece of clay.
And while they're involved in this state of concentrating
on the clay, then you can impart those more concrete ideas
into them, because they're not resisting. It's like you
get lost. In Zen, lost is found. So you get this person
to be so involved in their art that they get lost . And
then concepts of finding who they are, what they are, what
they need to do, emerge out of that defenseless state when
their subconscious is wide open.
MASON: Yeah. I remember Noah talking about that. And
so, now, the way you explain it, I understand a lot
RIDDLE: We used to discuss that. I mean, we used to
discuss all these things in bits and pieces. And then,
when you take these bits and pieces and go back into art,
then when you get lost, some of these things that have
been planted in your subconscious, which you don't see a
connection between them, then some of those fall into
place. And then, that way, you go a little bit further in
how you see things. So that's how you keep, basically,
the bitterness that you might have away from people that
you're charged with the responsibility of trying to, so-
MASON: Yeah. Let's see. Were you involved in that--?
There was a peace project for Vietnam or against Vietnam
in like '65 or something like that?
RIDDLE: Not really. I mean, other than I used to do art
about the war. Some of my art I enjoyed the most--
eventually it sold, too--was anti-war art. I remember
[Richard M.] Nixon came out with the gradual plan called
"gradual peace withdrawal." And I remember doing a
picture with a completely disemboweled part of a soldier.
To me, the fact that they were still killing and being
killed, that was a form of gradual troop withdrawal, too.
Because everybody who got killed or wounded got withdrawn.
It wasn't like every month we're going to reduce the
American military involvement by 10,000 men. That might
be true over here, but they're also reducing it by 270
killed and wounded every month, too. So [Henry A.]
Kissinger's, "Peace is at hand"-- When he made that
statement was the same speech where he made-- That was the
same day, which was a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, some
irrational day, where they started the bombing of Hanoi
with the B-52 bomber. I remember I found an old bomb in a
surplus store one day. I dismantled it, and then I made a
cast of a hand, and I cut the hand all up in pieces. So
it went from "Peace is at hand" and it became Pieces of
Hand with the bombs falling on a yellow hand and
fragmenting it. Because there's always--like Carmen says
about the news- -an irony.
That's like go back to the Haitians. The Haitians
can't come in. And here these people-- We prop up
dictatorial governments from Papa Doc [Duvalier] right up
till now. Those people live in horrible conditions. And
when they go back, they beat them and stuff, you know.
And yet they say, "No, you're not political refugees."
And yet these people that could blow up the World Trade
Center, they can come here; boatloads of Chinese can come,
be falling all out of boats at night and drowning in the
New York harbor; millions of Hispanics from-- Used to be
just Mexicans, but now it's probably as far down as the
tip of Argentina.
CARMEN RIDDLE: Boy, Los Angeles is all Hispanics.
RIDDLE: But it's economics. It's because they can hire
those people; they don't pay taxes. I mean, that showed
up when Clinton was trying to make a point. They don't
pay taxes; they don't pay any of that. And yet, they get
these people for one- third or one- fourth of what they
could get somebody else for. And again, that impacts
directly on-- They say, "Blacks don't want to work for
minimum wage." You know, "Blacks don't want to work for
four dollars an hour." But they can get these Hispanics
for one dollar an hour. They wouldn't hire a black for
four dollars an hour if they could, if they could get four
Hispanics. They've got all these illegal aliens; they
don't try to stop them. They say, "Well, there are
millions. We can't do anything about it." They could
arrest the people who have these sweat factories where
they work. Say, "Factory closed, you've got illegal
aliens in here. Give me that house, you've cheated the
IRS [Internal Revenue Service] for ten years on taxes." I
mean, they've got laws, if they want you. That's what
they got Marcus Garvey for. You know, they can go get
Marcus Garvey, but they can't go get Julia Steinmetz,
who's got five hundred people working illegally in a shoe
MASON: Who was that?
RIDDLE: Anybody. I'm just making up names.
MASON: Oh, I get it.
CARMEN RIDDLE: I haven't heard that one.
RIDDLE: There's probably some guy who's got some factory
full of Chinese and Mexicans. You know, I'm not being a
racist on them. They're trying to make it, too. But,
you know, put Eastern Airlines back in business by
grabbing up these people who don't belong here. Fly them
back to Mexico. Eastern wouldn't have gone out of
business if they had just had the job from the government
flying these illegals. Why should we pay for them to go
to school? We pay for their hospitalization. We pay all
the taxes while the people who get to go live and be on
Robin Leach, [Lifestyles ofl the Rich and Famous, are
skimping. That's not right. Anyway, that's--
MASON: Yeah. Let's see. Well, did you want to say
anything about the Black Arts Council?
RIDDLE: No. Looking on here, I just remembered that
those were-- Basically, we discussed them when we talked
about the artists getting together and talking and
discussing things. I mean, any black organization, to
me, that promotes black unity or culture or cooperation —
friendship--is a valid black organization. Anything that
has as its by-product- -or its direct product--positivism
is a valuable black organization. Where they run into
trouble is when they start dealing with f Robert ' s 1 Rules
of Order and who's got the money. "Who's collecting the
money and the dues?" And then they get to fighting. But
other than that, I mean, I don't have any problem with
any black organization that's trying to do something
positive for our race, because we don't have enough of
it. [tape recorder off]
We did a thing about the Black Arts Council. We
just did what they accomplished, in a way. And then it
says about the Ankrum Gallery and the Brand Library- -
Yeah, there were always enough venues to exhibit. If you
had art, there would be some galleries like-- In fact, I
exhibited at the Heritage Gallery. That was when Bill
Cosby first bought some of my art. And there was art at
Brockman. There were always enough places to show- -I
mean, if you did art--and it's still the case now. If
you do enough art, and you refuse to show just old art,
there's always a place to show some art.
It's just like in that movie about the baseball
field, Field of Dreams, and a guy said--they make fun of
it now-- This voice kept telling this guy out in the
middle of an Iowa cornfield, "Build it and they will
come," which was like a faith thing, you know. And it's
the same. If you do enough art even to the point where
your closets are bulging with art and your storage spaces
are bulging with unseen art, eventually an art venue will
appear for you to have a chance to show.
MASON: I guess I was just asking that because you often
hear that black artists are excluded from the market and
they are invisible as artists--well, that's not exactly
RIDDLE: Well, to me it goes back to you can make up
these excuses why you don ' t get to show and you don ' t get
this and you don't get that and you don't get funded.
You know, "I can't do art unless this art council gives
me some money." Well, then your overriding desire isn't
to do art. If your overriding desire is to do visual
art, if you're a visual artist--to write, if you're a
writer; to dance, if you're a dancer; to write and figure
out manuscripts for plays, if you're a playwright- -you ' re
going to do it. And eventually somebody will say, "Wow!
This is good stuff." But if you don't do it because you
don't see the venue or the outlet [up] front, then what
does it matter if you find a producer or a publisher or
exhibit space? You don't have no art; you ain't got
nothing to show anyway- So I think the more important
thing is to do the art. And don't worry, just do the
best creative work you can do and, eventually, it will be
seen. Do it and it will be shown, like "Build it and
they will come."
MASON: I guess there is also that romantic idea that,
well, if black artists didn't have the market to worry
about, then their art would be somehow more spontaneous
or more this-- Whereas white artists, they always had
kind of a market in the back of their minds, and so their
work tends to be more--
RIDDLE: Yeah. That's kind of like a generalization,
because-- I like to put it in perspective. You think
about the life of Van Gogh, who supposedly never sold a
piece of art in his lifetime, and now his work is
priceless. So the real issue is, if Van Gogh had said,
"Well, I'm never going to get to sell a piece of art in
my life; therefore, I'm not going to do art," there
wouldn't be Van Gogh. So I think the white artists have
just as hard a time as the black artists. I mean,
they're white artists who-- You don't have to like the
work of [Andy] Warhol or somebody who just happened to
hit the right place at that right time with art. But
that's no different than when World War II started:
Churchill was in England, Stalin was in Russia, Roosevelt
was here. Hitler was in Germany, Mussolini was in-- You
know, great leaders all at one time, because the time
required great leaders, because it was a tumultuous time
in the world. Always, there are people who are in the
right place at the right time in history that they become
the acknowledged people.
There's a question in one of your things about
Stokely Carmichael and Willy Ricks. And I'm always
amazed how Willy Ricks was the person who basically
coined the phrase "black power, " but Stokely Carmichael
is the one who said it at the right place and the right
time and it was picked up on the national air waves. And
Stokely Carmichael became the main SNCC [Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] advocate for black
power. But look how many people got busted upside the
head, squirted with water hoses, bitten by dogs, jailed
by a status quo system, law enforcement and stuff, before
Stokely, before Willy Ricks. But as the thing peaked to
a zenith there at the right place, the right time, the
right man saying it, he became a celebrity. Willy Ricks
is still alive. But Willy Ricks said things to me that--
Like, he's the one who said the role of the student in
the struggle is to learn, study, get as smart as they
can, and then articulate the contradiction. And I still
remember him saying that, because it made sense.
Willy Ricks is the one I first heard say-- Well,
I'll tell you another one. Like one of my oldest sons
[Anthony Thomas Riddle] said-- This had stuck because he
had said it at the right time. Tony Riddle said,
"Lifestyle begins where rhetoric ends." So you can talk
about it, but when you take that action step, that
becomes lifestyle. All that other stuff is rhetoric.
And that's a big problem with black people, too. We
talk, "Man, the white man! The white man! The white
man!" Well, if you know it's the white, why do we
continue to let the white man rule? Why don't we begin
some self-rule? If we know the white man is not doing
things in our best interest, which is natural anyway,
because everybody in America is trying to get the best
they can-- So the white man's not going to say, "Well,
we've got to sacrifice and give something to these black
folk." Then black folk make enough money collectively to
do for self. Just like the Honorable Elijah Muhammad-- A
lot of people say, "Well, Elijah Muhammad, he's just an
old fanatic racist clothed in Islam. He ain't talking
about nothing." But at least he spoke to do for self,
which is a good concept.
You know, we don't have grocery stores. But the
people who sell hair products, fine cars like Cadillacs
and things-- You look in the black enterprise one hundred
top corporations, and you see what kind of products they
do. And then you go look at Fortune 500--the few blacks
that are in the Fortune 500--Johnson Publishing, hair
products people, Cadillac dealerships. But they're
catering goods and services to black people
professionally. And there's enough black money out there
to be wealthy if you give black people goods and services.
But we don't support each other. "Man, I ain't giving no
money to no nigger. All they do is do you wrong." I
mean, we don't like ourselves, so we don't like people who
look like us. So we suffer as a race and then we blame it
on the white man. We've got to blame that on ourselves.
Now, I don't even know what that question was about,
[laughter] You have to stop me, because I will ramble on.
I didn't know what "cultural nationalism" was. I
^4AS0N: Oh, what we talked about between-- I asked you if
there were artists who were interested in what the [Black]
Panthers were saying, because you went through the Bobby
Seale book. Seize the Time, versus Ron Karenga ' s version
of cultural nationalism. And you were saying that, you
know, black people need both, they need Martin [Luther
King, Jr.] and-- But I was just wondering, if you knew--
Do you know any artists who actually studied under Ron
RIDDLE: Not under Ron. But I used to know some people
who were inf luenced--I mean, I'm one myself--indirectly
and directly from being involved in the Black Panther
Party. Because that was a cultural-- It's like Emory
Douglas and that paper [California Eagle] . But see, that
paper at one time, it was probably the largest circulation
of a black newspaper in California. It probably went to
other states, too. But the Black Panther Party paper had
at one time a circulation of like three or four hundred
thousand a week, and it was a major organ in their
fundraising activity, too. They had people on the streets
selling the party paper, and they weren't goofing the
money off. I mean, the money was going to support Panther
Party programs rather than "Here's a pile of money. Let's
everybody rip some off."
And at one time, it was a very good organization, but
its premise of militarism--the police aren't going to ever
let that stand. You can have Aryan nation, you could have
all these white supremacists and ultra right-wing groups
that can arm themselves to the teeth, but you let some
black folks start arming and all the paranoia and guilt of
hundreds of years of knowing that they've done black
people wrong and that black people would surely, if given
the opportunity, wreak revenge on them in like manner, the
way they've treated black people in America-- See, because
that scares the hell out of white people.
MASON: No, but they liked that. I mean, because with the
Panthers and stuff, the students were like "Oh, wow!"
RIDDLE: But it's not enough of a-- That's like a
rejection of their parents and the existent culture. But
like for most of them, if it comes down to assuming the
life of a black person, the lifestyle of a black person,
in the gun sights of the FBI [Federal Bureau of
Investigation] or the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency]
and the local authorities and clandestine operations
against you and threats of jail from every way that they
can get you, from tax evasion to something that you might
have actually done illegal, they don't want that. It's a
very, very hard, stressful lifestyle. And those
underground white organizations at the time, like the
Weathermen and Tom Hayden, the guy who was married to Jane
Fonda, they affiliated on one level with blacks, but they
had their own agenda.
I mean, it's just like, as cold as it sounds, the
white woman's liberation movement. It wasn't so much
about the black sisters getting some equality; the white
women wanted to be higher in the corporate structure than
they had been allowed to go. They wanted some of the jobs
that had been reserved exclusively for white men to roll
over to white women, whether it was on the police forces,
whether it was in areas where only white men had done the
work before. It wasn't like they said, "Well, once we
break this door down, come on, black sisters, you're
coming with us!" Them white women didn't care nothing
about that. They didn't then, and they don't now.
MASON: It's the same with black women during slavery.
Sometimes there was a split between women's suffrage and
[inaudible]. It's like why should we expect white women
to be different than white men?
RIDDLE: And there's good people. I mean- -like, you know,
since you brought up the slavery time- -those abolitionists.
They were real, because they subjected themselves to harsh
punishment. John Brown, I mean, he died. They say, "Well,
John Brown, he was a fanatic." But what was he a fanatic
about? About freedom. I heard somebody the other day on
the news talking about-- Well, they were talking about
these Sudanese who just got arrested in New York. And they
were saying they were using terrorist tactics to try to
take greater control of the country. It was D'Amato or
[Alphonse] D'Amato in New York, or whatever his name is.
And I was thinking, "Wait a minute." What he was saying
was-- If you applied what he said to how the Americans did
the Indians, there was no difference. None.
Like, yesterday. South African extremists went into
the meeting with [Frederik W.] de Klerk, [Nelson R.]
Mandela, and [Mangosuthu G.] Buthelezi, where they were
trying to talk about transference of South Africa's
government to a majority rule. These crackers came in
there with their guns, with their camouflage suits, bust
the windows out of the building and stormed the meeting.
But yet, in Soweto, they can gun down sixty-nine or
seventy-- Or like in South Sharpsville or some other
place. They can gun down hundreds of black people just
for being out there protesting. No guns. Nothing. Just
gun them down, have a massacre. But when these crackers
show up talking about how they're going to overthrow the
government and they've got guns and they're breaking up
government property, there's not a shot fired.
The same way in Sarajevo. The United States and
France and Britain, they are not going into another
country and kill white people. They'll go into Somalia
and kill black people, like they went into Vietnam and
killed black people. Like they'll go into Nicaragua and
kill black people. Like they'll go into Panama and kill
black people. But they are not going into a white
conclave and kill other white people. They haven't done
it since the Second World War, and they're not going to do
it. And yet, they say the Muslims can't have weapons to
defend themselves against the Croats and the Serbians.
But it's all right for the Serbians and the Croats to have
weapons to kill the Muslims.
I mean, this is going far afield, I know. But see,
if you go to the ultimate injustice, Algeria-- They had an
election this year. The fundamentalist Muslims in Algeria
won a legitimate one-person, one-vote election.
Democracy. The army invalidated the elections. America
hasn't said anything, because the real thing is the rise
of fundamental Islam coming out of Iran, Iraq, over there
where Muammar Qaddaf i--another one of the bad guys-- All
these places where fundamentalism is on the rise- -Egypt,
all through the Middle East--America is against it. But
it's a legitimate movement. They have enough people to
have an influence over how they want the part of the world
they live in to be run. But we're afraid of
fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is our enemy. We ain't
afraid of no fundamentalism like Jerry Falwell and some of
these right-wing wackos, but we're afraid of Muslim
fundamentalism. So we favor Israel.
I mean, Israel is like an organ transplant. And the
only reason it hasn't been rejected by the body that's the
Middle East is because we've got so many life-support
systems going in there to keep that transplanted organ in
that part of the world that it can't be overthrown. You
can't do that forever. It's like the art we talked about.
It may last one hundred years [but] it's deteriorating all
the time. One day the wall goes down; the art got to go
with it. Them Jews cannot maintain an occupied territory
through the muzzle of a gun. They can go get ten thousand
Russians and say, "Now, you Jews kick some Arabs out."
They are not going to be able to maintain that narrow,
shaky position for another fifty years.
It's the same thing in South Africa. Crackers be
talking about, "We want our own country. We want
separatism." Now, if you thought about the most logical,
fair, and just solution to that, you'd say, "Okay, you've
got it." Give them the same homeland territory that they
put them black people on. It didn't have a damn thing out
there. So yeah, "You can have Botswana; you can have this
little homeland." You know, they put them black folk
where there was no resources, where there was no scenery.
It looked like they put them in the middle of Kansas.
Those crackers want independence, the ones who want to
stay there. Say [to them], "Okay. The blacks are coming
to Johannesburg and run the factories, and you can have
that wasteland you gave them." That's fair. It was good
enough for the blacks to have their separate homeland.
Let the crackers take it over and see what they can do
with it. But they won't. They want the gold mines, they
want the copper mines, they want the shipping ports. You
can't have them! So they're going to have a bloodbath
there. And let me tell you, when the blood starts
flowing, we ain't going to go there and intervene until
you see five, six, seven hundred white folk a day dying.
They'll say, "Oh, stop! Something's got to be done." But
as long as they see ten thousand black bodies a day, "Oh,
we deplore the violence." But you let them crackers start
getting killed, everybody is going to be wanting to run
over there and intervene then. It's just the way it is.
That's why I guess I sound-- Nobody at my house talks
to me because I seem too bitter. [laughter]
MASON: Yeah, we're in a state of real politics now where
Ollie [Oliver] North can be called an American hero for
breaking the law.
RIDDLE: Yeah, and lying.
MASON: But it's a matter of--
RIDDLE: Just flat out lying.
RIDDLE: He got on TV the next night on Frontline, the
next night after he got acquitted, and said, "Yeah, I've
got tapes," and played the tapes. I sat right there and
read all the tape [of] his voice. They had like the words
to go along with the tape so you could hear exactly what
he said. "Yeah, Reagan knew everything. Yeah, I knew
everything. Yeah, we knew everything. Yeah, we did it."
Because he had been acquitted. Now he's running for
senator from North Carolina or some damn place. I can't
believe it, boy. But, see, the white man's threatened.
He's threatened in America because the white man is,
through his own sexual activity in the past, becoming
extinct himself. He's not going to be a pure white man
anymore. That scared the hell out of the white man. But
there's nothing he can do about it, because as the world
shrinks and as people become more interrelated, there's
going to be less and less pure white blood. And white men
have proven with their theories of genetics that dark
dominates white. You put black and white together, you
don't get white paint: you get grey. So as the white
man-- If you put, like, Japanese eyes, oriental eyes, you
put slant and round, you don't get round as often as you
get somewhere between slant and round, which is oval. So
it's like the dominant genes. You take curly and
straightm, you get more curly than you do straight. You
may get one straight, one curly, and two mixed. So the
white man's gene isn't even the dominant gene. How the
hell does he expect to be the dominant species when he
doesn't have a dominant gene?
MASON: By an imagination that can create an atom bomb.
RIDDLE: Well, that's that same-- That's why in Yacub, he
was like a mutation in that play, the white man is a
mutation. He ' s a genetic disease that's come to afflict
MASON: Oh, you mean that Muslim [inaudible]?
RIDDLE: Yeah, Yacub. So, I mean, it's not necessarily
true. But you look at some of the ways other cultures--
so-called third-world, subcultures--view their
relationship to earth. It's like the way we destroy the
rain forest. I mean, I haven't done any art about that.
But it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to
consider that the most exotic plants in the world, some of
them are in the Amazon region of Central America, South
America. And who knows if some of those plants-- If we
had as many botanists down there as they have low-priced
labor cutting old growth trees and clear-cutting the
Amazon, who's to say that that many botanists down there
couldn't have the cure to AIDS, cancer, that every major
medical affliction that's bothering people on the face of
the planet couldn't be, somehow, culled naturally from the
flora and fauna that exists down there?
TAPE NUMBER: V, SIDE ONE
JUNE 26, 1993
RIDDLE: Actually, it's right next to some of the so-
called West. The Russians were excluded because they were
our antagonists, so they didn't get to be the West. It's
the silliest thing. It's like saying the Middle East is
in Africa. You look at parts of what they call the Middle
East--a lot of that's Africa. But they don't want you to
say Africa, because then you realize that that's part of
the dark continent, the part of the continent where we
come from. So by geographically calling it the Middle
East, somehow it disassociates it from Africa.
MASON: I think with Russia the division was because of
the church, the division between the Catholic Church and
the Eastern Orthodox Church.
RIDDLE: To me, it's all convenient. It's like Western
art. What is Western--? When they say Western art, they
go right back and get Europe and the United States. But
here's Haiti closer to the United States than Europe.
They don't call Haitian art no Western art. It's Haitian
art. Mexico is closer than Haiti: Columbian art. And
then they named that after Columbus. Pre-Columbian. I
mean, come on! But yet they don't talk about all the
black people who came to Central America and Mexico
before Columbus. I mean, where did the Olmec heads come
from? Out of the imagination of the indigenous people?
Or were they influenced by people who came over on reed
boats, like the Ra? That's why Thor Heyerdahl didn't get
no glory after-- As soon as he docked that boat, I mean,
he started-- He should be an American or Western
civilization hero, because he proved that you could sail
from the mouth of the Nile with indigenous material--
material that was local to the region--follow the currents
and sail across the ocean. But they didn't--
Same with [Louis S.] Leakey. I mean, all his
discoveries in Africa. He should be the most preeminent
anthropologist for human remains on the planet. But he
and his son [Richard E. Leakey], they don't get no real
glory like they should because they show the origins of
man coming from the Rift Valley in Olduvai Gorge in
Tanganyika rather than in France. You know, so these
things do, to me- -maybe it's just personal prejudice- -but
they fly in the face of what Western civilization would
lead you to believe. "Christ is white." I mean, come on.
How could a white Christ be in the region that Christ is
supposed to have come from where it was inhabited by
darker- skinned people than white people? So, to me, it's
all like a grand game to make you think that you're not as
good or as worthy as the people who want to control the
resources of the earth.
Like people never think about England. To me,
England is worse than Hitler, worse than any of them,
because they tried to conquer the world. They used to
brag, "The sun never sets on the British Empire." I mean,
they couldn't conquer China, so they brought in drugs.
Maybe that ' s where the pattern for control of black folk
in America was drawn. Make big money and control-- That's
why we got mad at Malcolm [X] when he said that time, the
queen- -whoever the queen was at that time-- [is] the
biggest drug dealer in the history of the world. But it's
like they tried to conquer India. Look how long they
controlled India. What right do they have to tell an
Indian--there are many more people in India than there are
in England--that they should be British? The reason you
never hear why the First World War was fought is because
there was fighting over Africa. They were kicking Germany
out of Africa. They were kicking Germany out of Africa.
MASON: But, I mean, in the whole history of the world,
there's always been-- I mean, even if you look at West
Africa and the Asante, I mean, they were a powerful
kingdom and they went out and conquered other people. The
Romans and Alexander the Great. I mean, maybe there were
some Native American tribes who stayed at home. But most
people seemed to-- I don't know. They think they're going
to run out of resources.
RIDDLE: Well, maybe man has always--like you said--
History probably documents that man has always been
warlike with his neighbors, aggressive towards his
neighbors and territory and stuff. But I wasn't around
then; I'm around now. And I see how since the Second
World War that the United States has not fought a hot war
with white people. I've seen us fight the Koreans, the
Vietnamese, the-- Any kind of dark people you can name,
we've fought. But we don't fight white people. And, to
me, I don't like it.
I think the whole war thing, military weaponry,
trillions of dollars that we're in debt-- That's welfare
for white people, because they've got the jobs and the
technology. They make the big checks for nuclear weapons,
for warheads, for missiles. I mean, you can't even use
them. If you use the stuff, you destroy the world. And
if you don't use it beyond the blackmail power that it had
to keep Russia and America from jumping on each other--and
then when China got some, they couldn't jump on China--
aside from that deterrent value, it's worthless. What do
you do with a used warhead? What do you do with ten tons
of deadly nerve gas? What do you do with it? You can't
do nothing with it. You know, what do you do with a space
station--? They say, "Well, we might find a cure for
cancer on a space station." You take $15 billion and put
it into cancer research, you'll find a cure a hell of a
But I saw something out here that's totally
different. It's not like any of that at all. It's like
fresh air. You asked the question, "Would you say more
about your interest in bebop?" And I think, very briefly,
that music-- I wrote on this, "Jazz provides the thinking
rhythm that goes with the art." Because you don't have
to-- It's an audio thing. It goes through the ears, but
your hands and your mind are still free to work in
conjunction with what you hear in the music. So it
provides like an audio setting and a rhythmic energy.
You're listening to creativity expressed a lot of times on
the spot without sheet music- -sometimes without rehearsal,
sometimes with--but very brilliant ideas expressed
audibly. And that's an inspiration that can allow you to
try to express yourself visually the way the--
That ' s one of the things, too, that's nice, that it's
usually groups of musicians working together, which goes
back to, again, my romanticized view of everything of how
the African artisans worked together. They followed
tradition. They had a basic structure that you had to
adhere to, but you followed tradition. Like maybe the
bebop, for instance, was a school, and men who played
bebop worked within the parameters of that school on one
level, but they're always trying to push the evolution of
the school out the other side into that avant-garde period
that you speak of, because that's part of the evolution.
But there's a foundation, and then there's growth and
experimentation away from that foundation. And I think
that that's closer to--
Maybe that's why black people put together what they
call black classical music, i.e., jazz. It came from the
basic rhythmic instruments that black people--I hate to
say — invented. But I think black rhythmic music, even if
you hear it played contemporarily in different countries
with those long wooden horns and the drums and the
shekere, there's a rhythm there that's basic. It's basic
all the way through Elvis Presley and anything else you
want to put together.
It's different from classical music, because the
interpretations of a great classical pianist playing a
concerto-- They like to say, "Well, I liked his
interpretation and the power he brings to the
performance." But still, it's within the context of the
repetition of those exact notes, you know, where they're
playing over and over those same notes. You might put an
emphasis here or there, but basically you're not going to
just take a pen and write changes to all the chords and
notes of Chopin, you know. But with jazz, you're allowed
to do that.
MASON: And you were saying with visual art, there is no
classical music because you are working with--
RIDDLE: To me, there's no rules for visual art.
MASON: I mean, what you were saying about African art,
how it was traditional and--
RIDDLE: Yeah, artifact. Because it wasn't really
intended to be art.
RIDDLE: It was intended to be ceremonial and ritual. I
remember reading once in this book about southern Africa
before the Boers and the British and the Dutch and all
that. And they were talking about how to build this
particular ceremonial drum. It could only be taken from a
tree that was a certain age, a certain kind of wood, at a
certain time of year. And you had the keeper of the
tradition at the top of the hierarchy, and you had the
skilled person under him who would take his place when he
passed on to the spiritual world. And down to the very
bottom of these different levels of drum makers, you had
the apprentice just learning. I got out of that
particular story that the making of the drum, as closely
as it could be made to how the drum had been made for
centuries, was much more important than you getting off in
a corner and saying, "Hey, I've got this new idea about
these drums." The Western view is to push the mainstream
ever forward and ever changing, whereas artifact and
tradition and spirituality was like you're supposed to try
to maintain the tradition. I think jazz is like trying to
constantly create at the edge, where classical is more a
reinterpretation of what was. Then I see where art is
more like-- I don't see any rules for art. Art is
anything you want to do. In a way it has, like,
traditions, and in another way, "anything goes" in art.
Non-art is art.
I saw a show once where the guy didn ' t have anything
hanging on the wall and won a prize at the Barnsdall Park.
Congruent Reality. He had a title, but there wasn't
nothing hanging up there. And that won a prize. So no
art was art. On one level, that's as far as you-- He
could only take it one step further, if he hadn't put a
title up there. Even if he said Untitled it would have
taken it a step further than some kind of make-believe
MASON: You wouldn't have this presence there in the
RIDDLE: Yeah, you wouldn't even know it was art. Only
the curator would know. [laughter] And then in the
catalog, they could put something in the catalog, "Did you
notice that one wall was blank?" And say, "I noticed
that. Why did they put--?" The art was there, but it was
the ultimate of abstract expressionism- -whatever . There's
some word .
RIDDLE: Yeah, yeah. I knew there was some word.
Dematerialization of form. But that's--
MASON: Well, how did assemblage fit into not an African
tradition specifically, but an African American? Did I
ask you how you learned about African American art? Like
the older artists? Was that like with Charles White?
RIDDLE: You'll probably get bits and pieces. And then I
like to read, because I like research more than art.
Because research leads-- You do a lot of art conceptually
after researching that I had never gotten around to
actually doing in reality. You read about the different
black artists. I forget the guy's name now, but he was a
great landscape painter. Buchannan might be his name.
But there's lots of artists, like [Henry 0.] Tanner, and
then there's-- And it helps as a black artist if you can
relate to your own kind.
I mean, it's like the Bible never made sense till I
went to BCN, Black Christian Nationalist Church. The
opening premise: Jesus was black because God is black,
and then all of a sudden, you had a whole new perspective
on Jesus. It makes way more sense to think that somebody
who was running around on the continent of Africa was
black instead of white. And when you read in The Bible as
History at Cal[ifornia] State [University, Long Beach]
that on the shore of-- I guess it might be lake- -wherever
Uganda is--it's probably Lake Tanganyika. That's where,
biblically, they think the Garden of Eden would have been
if there had been a Garden of Eden. It's one of the
places they offered Israel when they were making an offer
to Palestine. I think it was around '48. But the fact
that it could have been in Africa, the Garden of Eden, I
mean, that's not in New York City. That's some dark-
skinned people there. So maybe Adam and Eve were black.
You don't know. When you think about it, there's more
dark-skinned people on the planet than white people. Why
would God, if he made people in his image, pick the race
that had the least amount of people and say, "This is what
I look like." It's an interpretation. So when I heard
that Jesus was black and God was black-- I used to go to
church and they started pointing out that he had "hair of
wool and feet of bronze."
You don't hear anything in history about the Moors.
Then you read, one time, how they conquered Spain and you
read about Moorish art and Moorish architecture. They
brought the arch to European architecture and stuff. And
then you see that as, "Well, here's some black architects
who changed the face of European art and changed the
complexion of the people. And then somehow, at some
point, that feeds back into Romare [Bearden] and Jake
[Jacob Lawrence]. And you find there's so many things
that you're interested in about black people that all go
[to] help you to have an African American experience as an
artist. So, to me, everything that's happened in the
history of black people is part of the material of African
Then you see other people who are practitioners as
African American artists. I remember like Romare--the
first time I really saw Romare ' s work. He had a show in
Pasadena and it took up a whole wall. It was a street
scene, like tenements and everything, but he had sound
with it-- Sirens, sounds that he had probably recorded in
a New York street scene, people talking and everything.
And all of a sudden you got this extra-dimensional
concept. Instead of just some color and some images, all
of a sudden you're-- I guess, if you'd had smells, you'd
have almost been there. You know, instead of Pasadena,
you could have been in Harlem. They just influence you
because they're one of you, and they do what you like to
do. So you begin to build these bridges of identification
between yourself, their styles, and your [art] . You know,
it's a natural thing.
But I started off with Van Gogh and Rembrandt. And I
still like them, too, because as artists, they say a lot
of stuff I like. But as subject matter, I have to take--
Like yesterday, I was thinking about Huey [P.] Newton. I
never saw a piece about Huey. Huey Newton, a little boy,
with certain things about him, up to [the time that he was
at] the head of the Black Panther Party. Huey Newton in
prison. Huey Newton, drug addict. Huey Newton, dead.
And I thought it would be nice to do a piece, a drawing of
Huey, in about five or six faces, where it starts out very
vague and faint, and it gets sharper and focuses as you go
to the middle of the piece. Then, at the zenith of his
influence, that's the sharpest contrast, and then he
starts fading out. And at the end, he's gone. I mean, in
a way, that's like all the people who have influence.
They flash across the screen of experience and they fade
on out, you know. If they're a strong enough influence to
attract your attention, then you're like, "Wow!" You may
only get him right there, "Wow!" You might have known him
from the beginning; you might have gave up on him
somewhere and never saw him fade. But still, it's like--
And I thought that would be a nice piece to do. And then
I said, "Well, should I do it on--?" You could do it
easiest on a silk screen. Or a Xerox machine is even
easier than that. Just take the same picture and start
off with light and build to dark, and then fade back to
light, you know. But that's all symbols. I mean, we got
a symbol; you don't have to-- I mean, that's a lazy way to
do art. But if you can accumulate certain symbols, why
belabor the point and say, "I've got to draw it." But
some people feel that way.
MASON: There's this whole postmodern movement now that
says that symbols are all-- Some societies are so multi-
cultural that you can't assume that, you know, symbols
have the same meaning for everybody. So that's some of
the crisis in art and architecture. The Roman capital for
a European isn't the same thing for a--
RIDDLE: I guess to some people you'd present an image of
the Roman Colosseum and some of those partly deteriorated
pillars, and they wouldn't even know where that was. Yet,
to me, the strong part about those pillars is they
represent, in the state that they exist now--which is not
like in their highest state of grandeur--that everything
is in a state of flux, where there's the coming and the
going of things.
I heard a guy the other day who said, "Well, you know
what destroyed Rome was the homosexuality. "
And I was like, "No, man. Come on."
"They had way more homosexuality there than they have
in the United States now."
But that's not what destroyed Rome, [the]
homosexuality. Rome, just like all other things, it has
its day, and their day comes, and their day goes. Nobody,
no country, no person gets to stay on top forever.
That ' s what ' s hard for America to deal with right
now, that we emerged as the preeminent power after World
War II, we had that power for thirty- five strong years,
forty years if you stretch it-- I remember when [James E.]
Carter said in '70-- What was it? It was around '74,
right after the energy crisis. That was during the energy
crisis: me and Bridge [John Outterbridge] used to talk
about that. "How can there be an energy crisis? Does it
mean that your energy is at a low ebb and you can't do
nothing?" You know, we used to fall out about "energy
crisis." I even did a piece called Energy Crisis. It was
so ridiculous, you know.
But he showed at that time what Angela Davis said ten
years before; they both said the same thing. Angela was
complaining about the person in between the person who did
the work and the person who put the goods on the shelf to
be sold. There was a person who neither produced the
goods or sold the goods, who made a percentage of the
money off the goods. And why did that person need to be
in there, that middle person? And Carter was saying the
same thing when he said that there's a crisis of spirit.
It's not a crisis of energy. It was the same time when
America ceased to be a "manufacturer" of goods and began
its still-existing quest for "consumer." We became
consumers instead of producers. We let other people take
over the basic manufacture, and we began to be the people
who bought the finished goods. Whereas after the Second
World War, we were the manufacturer.
Everybody wanted American. "Made in America" meant
something. But the Japanese, hey, you know, they got to
retool all their factories after the end of the war with
[Douglas] MacArthur ' s version of the Marshall Plan for
Europe. Europe's got to retool because everything was
destroyed. They were non-militaristic, so they began to
make consumer goods for a country that was more and more
moving towards idleness, leisure, and materialism. They
provided that. The Japanese didn't have to defend
themselves, "We're going to defend you." Europe didn't
have to defend itself, "We're going to defend you." And
then we look up and see Germany and Japan making all the
money and we wonder why. Well, we gave them our
permission by our advocacy of "We're going to spend our
money on this one-time thing, this bomb."
I mean, a '41 Chevy is a classic car that Reggie
Jackson might pay $30,000 to fix up and put in his garage,
What are you going to do with a 1941 bomb you find in a
pineapple field in Hawaii that didn't explode? You've got
to call out the bomb team to keep it from killing
somebody. It has no resale value. But there might be
twenty owners of that '41 Chevy. There might be $10,000
worth of new parts that have been sold to keep it running.
You see, it's got value on into infinity. The bomb [has]
got value one time. People made some money when they
manufactured it. If the bomb is used, it's going to do
its job and kill somebody, and then the bomb is gone. The
bomb is used up. See, there's no resale value on weapons
except to kill. So it's crazy to me. Why can't gun
barrels be irrigation pipe? It's the same technology to
make a round gun barrel ; you can make a pipe to bring some
water to some arid land, produce some crops.
The same with the fertilizer industry. Rather than
encourage composting materials and using natural materials
and potash and everything to replenish the soil, they've
got everybody on the chemical kick. Drove all the small
farmers out of business, ended up ruining the land. I
mean, it's-- But they got money. DOW [Chemical Company]
and them made big money on the short-term. [Ronald W.]
Reagan and his last big rip-off-- We let everybody
mortgage the equity in this country. Nothing but robbers
stealing with both hands. And then, now they say, "Wow,
it sure is a big mess here!" But his friends got rich.
MASON : Yeah .
RIDDLE: It's so ridiculous. Talking about all that
savings and loan money is lost. If it was lost, I could
go out there and pick me up twenty dollars off my grass.
Billions and billions lost? I mean, that means money just
laying around there waiting for the wind to blow it. You
know? Shoot, nobody would have to even go to work for two
years, just harvest all that dough that's stuck in your
bushes. Talking about lost. It ain't lost. They took
that money right out of this country and put it over in an
Asian basin and produced cheaper goods and bought back the
stuff that went into default at ten cents on the dollar.
Cause a default and then buy it back. It's ridiculous.
And then we're sitting up here, people going for it.
That's why if I could do art, that's what my art would be
If I could do art that a million people saw every
day, that's what it would be about: Don't let these
crooks get away with it. I've got a piece of art now
that's in my head that shows the drug pyramid. And it's
made out of nine bags. If you make nine triangles and put
them in order, they come out to make a perfect big
triangle. Like one triangle, two, three, and four. I
guess, that's ten. But anyway, I was going to have like a
silk drawstring bag at the top, because those are the
people who don't see the drugs, don't use the drugs
necessarily, but they provide the economics and the
financing for the drug trade to exist. The second with
the two triangles is like the people directly under them:
the gangster elements, the corrupt elements, the pay-off
elements to keep that insulated from them. And then as
you go down, you've got like the transportation and all
that. But it's a whole sequence of how the retailer gets
the drugs at the bottom-- But the drug bags at the bottom,
they've got to be made out of burlap, something rough,
something textural and unpleasant to the touch. And who
are the retailers? That's where we are. We're down at
the bottom thinking we're making money, thinking we're big
time. But we don't own any of the manufacture,
transportation, any of the means of production. We're
just different levels of consumers. Some consumers
thinking that they're big-time wholesalers, but they're
just at the bottom of the thing. I saw this piece in nine
segments. I've been studying it. Every time I hear
something or think something, I write it down in this
notebook that's got all these things about this piece. I
might do it someday.
MASON: I mean, there are people like Noam Chomsky, an MIT
[Massachusetts Institute of Technology] professor, who has
a movie out. Do you know of him? Well, he's a professor
of linguistics at MIT, and he does a lot of stuff on
exposing the American government ' s role in the overthrow
of this government or that government in Central America.
RIDDLE: I love that stuff.
MASON: Yeah, and he's a respected professor at one of the
best schools in the country. He's got a film out now
called Manufacturing Consent: [Noam Chomsky and the
Media], and he goes around the country lecturing. Still,
he's just one person, but he is somebody who is visible
and respected. And yet, that doesn't seem to be helping
to change the way people think because, I guess-- Why
would you think that?
RIDDLE: You can't change everybody. One reason, I think,
is-- I used to think of it from a black perspective. If
you take a strong black movement like the civil rights
movement, you work and you sacrifice and people die for
principle. They advance the cause of their principle by
the energy that they apply. But the forces of resistance--
I used to always think of it as three shifts, three eight-
hour shifts like in a factory. The shifts never end.
Now, you may get tired after seventy-two days, or no days
off, working your butt off, and on that seventy- third day
say, "I've got to have me a rest," and you just stop. But
these three shifts never stop.
One time I saw it in a biology class at school . They
were showing the different struggles on the non-human
level, but they were applicable lessons. It showed the
starfish, and why the starfish is such a deadly adversary
in the clam and shellfish areas down on the bottom of the
ocean. It showed the clam is like this two-sided shell
that has a very powerful muscle that runs along its back
that allows the shell to open and close. A very strong
muscle. It showed when the starfish, who eats the
shellf ish--that ' s what they eat, this particular kind of
starfish anyway- -showed how he opened the shell-- Because
he had like six legs. They always had four or five legs
exerting this suction cup that was on the bottom of their
legs, pressing it to pull this shell open. Now, the shell
could resist. But the advantage the starfish had, he
always had two legs resting in rotation, so he never gave
up a four-legged pressure on the shell. And then pretty
soon the mussel got tired because it couldn't rest. It
had to just stay closed like this, and there was always
something pulling, trying to open it. So since the
pressure to open it was relentless, superior to the energy
and the strength of the mussel, eventually, the mussel got
tired and it relaxed. The starfish opened it up, stuck
his beak down in there, and ate the shellfish. And that's
why they were showing how they were trying to eradicate,
through chemicals, some kind of thing they could put down
on the floor of the ocean that would kill the starfish or
reduce their population, but not harm the shellfish, and
its ingestion by people later wouldn't cause the people to
get sick. So they had this problem trying to, you know,
adjust nature to man's need, which wasn't that bad a
But it just showed how relentless pressure can be
stronger than the will to change things. And so it grabs--
To me, it answers your question that if Professor Chomsky
can go around and he can influence through limited media
his ideas being made available to people-- He has a harder
time than Robert Dole getting on TV every day, Michaels
getting on TV every day. "This is the biggest tax and
spend-- Tax and spend. Tax and spend." I mean, you hear
"tax and spend" so much that you associate that with the
Democratic Party. But yet, you never hear the biggest
deficit maker in the history of the world, Ronald Reagan,
being described as a "borrow and spend." And that's what
he did. I mean, it's like he had a giant credit card, and
he just went around and abused the credit card.
Everything on credit. They borrowed and spent, borrowed
and spent, borrowed and spent into the greatest
accumulation of debt in the history of the world. But you
never hear "borrow and spend." That's what they did. But
you always hear "tax and spend, tax and spend, tax and
spend • "
So Chomsky is going around saying, "But look over
here. Look what's happening here," Now, a few people
will turn their heads, and they may be influenced and they
may change. But the vast majority in that bell-shaped
curve-- He's got this [group] to the left; 10 percent are
already for him. Now he's encroaching slightly into the
20 percent that is the next 10, pulling some people over.
But the mass of people, they see Dole, they see Reagan- -
I mean, Reagan, he was a wind-up toy. He was so bad
that they had to change his exit from exiting and going
out to the side after news conferences to-- They put the
thing, the podium, right in front of this long hall so
that when he got through, he just turned his back on the
press and went down this hall and disappeared, because he
made too many stupid remarks when he was going off the
side. And the press said, "Mr. Reagan, Mr. Reagan, Mr.
Reagan," and he'd say dumb stuff and they'd have to clean
it up. So they made it so all he had to do was no
personal ad lib, of f-the-record comments with the press.
You turn around and you go down that hall. And then, at
the end, if you remember Reagan, you'd always see Reagan,
"Well, I guess that's it." He'd turn around and walk down
that hall, and that was it. See, because he made too many
mistakes when he was just Reagan being Reagan, because
he ' s a dummy .
MASON: I remember when he was governor.
RIDDLE: Yeah. I mean, when [Edmund G.] "Pat" Brown ran--
I'll never forget my sister. I kid her to this day. Now,
she's radical; I'm a conservative next to her. When
Reagan ran against Brown, she said, "Ronald Reagan. Pat
Brown. Who cares? They're all the same." After Ronald
Reagan had been in a year, she said, "Damn, Ronald Reagan
is terrible." I mean, this man did-- He said, "We don't
have money to keep the marginally and the people worse
than marginal who are mentally retarded and have mental
problems in the institution." He put the walking crazies
on the street. If you go back, that's the beginning of
the massive period of homelessness that we have right now.
Not that everybody-- I mean, it became economics later.
But the first real rush of new homeless was when Ronald
Reagan dumped the insane asylums. When he did that-- I
remember when he did that. He said, "Well, we can't
I mean, they had Kent State. But nobody remembers
that Ronald Reagan called out the troops at [University of
California] Santa Barbara, and two students got killed.
And the thing that made it look bad was just before he
called out the sheriffs and those people in Santa Barbara,
he had made the statement, "Well, let them bite the
bullet." Now, he didn't say go out and shoot nobody. But
a couple of people didn't bite bullets, but they caught
bullets and died.
^4AS0N: At the University of Santa Barbara.
RIDDLE: Yeah. It's up there.
MASON: That's hard to believe.
RIDDLE: Well, I'd say it was right around the time of
Kent State that two people got killed by the sheriffs for
anti-war demonstrations up in Santa Barbara. I don't
remember the exact date now, but I remember when it
happened. But it's just-- But yet, he's considered--like
you said, Ollie North-- Well, he's the one who said Ollie
North was an American hero. And look at [William J.]
Casey! You think of the Ronald Reagan movie where he's
the Gipper, and he says, "Win one for the Gipper, " and
he's laying up there at Notre Dame, dying. And you think
about Casey. Here, the day Casey was supposed to testify
and all that stuff, his brain tumor- -he had to go to the
hospital. He never got out of the hospital. I know
Ronald Reagan told Casey, he said, "Casey, if you take
this hit for me and go on and die and let all the secrets
be dumped in your grave, we'll take care of your family."
It was too convenient.
MASON: The Corleones.
RIDDLE: Yeah. It's too convenient for Casey to just do
it. And when they got to those hearings on Contras for
arms, every trail led to Casey's grave. And there's no
way, once it went into Casey's grave, for it to come out
the other side and affect anybody. Everybody's all,
"Well, Casey did it. Casey did it." Aw, shoot. Come on.
MASON: The tape is going to end in a couple of minutes,
RIDDLE: I didn't get these other questions.
MASON: Well, actually you talked about most of them.
RIDDLE: I don't know. One thing, though, as it ends, I
have to make a confession about me and art. When I first
wanted to do art--I probably mentioned this before--!
found out if I did art, I could get to talk about art.
Kind of like you said the guy from MIT has another life,
but he also likes to go lecture. I can remember the night
that it happened, but I don't remember where. But the
first time they turned out the lights and there was an
audience and they put some slides of my art up on the
wall-- And I had written a script about each piece. I
realized that you had a darkened room, which meant the
focus was on your work, and you could write a voice-over
that was partly about your art as it appeared up there,
but that the symbols-- You could run your political and
social philosophy on a captive audience. That's when I
knew I really wanted to do art, so I could get some people
in a room where they couldn't get out and I could run my
theories-- So that's what I like the best. And I think
that you can influence more people in multimedia, visual
and audio. So that's really why I like to do art. That's
probably why I can't change and do nice little pictures.
That's why I always kept a job. I mean, I've had a
job longer than I've done art, because at least I had
money coming in for the support of my own family, which
was six kids and a wife [Carmen Garrott Riddle] of forty
years. And if you really want to do art, there's enough
time to do art. Me and David Hammons used to argue about--
Three hours a day during the week, that was fifteen hours
a week, and then do ten on the weekends, Saturday, and ten
on the weekend, Sunday: you were an artist thirty-five
hours a week. And a lot of artists I knew in L.A. weren't
doing art thirty- five hours a week that didn't have jobs.
And I had that formula for a long time that-- And I think
when you finally get caught up in your art, where your art
begins to develop a momentum and you transcend the
material with your thoughts-- You're not thinking of the
material. It's like a direct relationship between your
expression and your thought process without worrying about
the materials. So the technology is gone, and it's just a
straight link to your expression. I think, at that point,
you can do all the art you can do till you're exhausted,
and you can go to work the next day, whether it's in the
classroom or some mundane job or some job you enjoy, by
the fact that you progressed in your own evolution of
thought and idea. You've done something positive just
before you went to bed so you could get up and go to the
workplace. Nothing at the workplace can make you feel
really bad, because you've got something to look forward
to beyond the workplace. So I think that that's how I've
survived. I get to retire in five years. Maybe if I have
health for ten or fifteen years after I retire, I can
devote full time to art without having the restraints of a
large family on me and see what happens. I'm kind of
looking forward to it.
MASON: Okay. Well, thanks a lot.
RIDDLE: And I'd like to thank all the people I met in my
artistic life and in my life who've influenced me.
They're too numerous to mention, but I love them all.
Because we had a symbiotic relationship. And that's it.
MASON: Okay. Thank you.
AFRI -COBRA, 151
Allende, Salvador, 11-1^
Andrews, Benny, 135-36
Ankrum Gallery ( Los
Art-West Associated, 114,
Bailey, Herman "Kofi," 133-
Bearden, Romare, 135, 183-
Biggers, John T., 184-85
Black Artists Association,
Black Arts Council, 211
Black Christian Nationalist
Church, 23-25, 168-70,
Black Panther Party, 193,
Bohanon, George, 130
Bohanon, Gloria, 130
Booker, Claude, 108, 134
Brockman Gallery ( Los
Angeles), 106, 109, 111,
Brown, Edmund G., "Pat,"
Brown, John, 220
Bush, George H.W., 125,
California African American
California Eagle, 217
Carlin, George, 125
Carmichael, Stokely, 158,
Carter, James E., 73, 240-
Casey, Bernard T.,
"Bernie, " 110
Casey, William J., 250-51
Castro, Fidel, 74
Chomsky, Noam, 244-45,
Coltrane, John, 79, 92
Concholar, Dan R. , 96,
100-101, 131, 176, 179
Concholar, Olivia, 100-101
Cosby, Bill, 202, 212
Davis, Alonzo, 96, 108-9,
111, 117, 176
Davis, Angela Y. , 240
Davis, Anthony T., 13
Davis, Miles, 133
Douglas, Emory, 109, 134
(grandmother), 2, 3, 4
Du Bois, W.E.B., 116, 156
Edwards, Melvin, 96-97,
Eversley, Frederick J.,
Franklin, Shirley, 122
Gale, Wesley, 114-15
Gallery 32 ( Los Angeles ) ,
Garrott, Alice, 17, 93
Gillespie, Dizzy, 87, 92
Goodnight, Paul, 185
Griffin, Hal, 11
Hall, John, 187
Hammons, David, 71, 101-4,
105-6, 111-12, 117, 159,
163-64, 176, 177, 179,
252; Skillets in the
Closet, 103; How Ya Like
Me Now. 103
Hasenfus, Eugene, 127, 187
Haynie, Wilbur, 106
Herbert, Ernest, 106-7
Heritage Gallery (Los
Heyerdahl, Thor, 228
Hill, Anthony, 173-75
Hilliard, David: This Side
of Glory (novel), 193-94
Hoffus, Tony, 41-42
Honeywood, Varnette, 42,
Horowitz, Benjamin, 111
Huggins, John, 116
Hussein, Saddam, 125
Jackson, Jessie L. , 103
Jackson, Maynard, 144-45
Jackson, Suzanne, 92-93,
100, 109-10, 180-81
Jefferson, Joanne Tyler
(sister), 1, 21-22
Jenkins, Kerry, 15
Johnson, Daniel LaRue, 88-
89, 96-97, 141
Johnson, Suzy Pinkney
( aunt ) , 3
Karenga, Maulana, 115-16
Keeling, Judy (sister), 1
King, Martin Luther, Jr. ,
Kissinger, Henry, 73,
Lawrence, Jacob, 135, 150,
Leakey, Louis S., 228
Leakey, Richard E., 228
Lewis, Samella, 181
Lomax, Melanie, 145, 146
Lomax, Michael, 145
Lomax, Wilhemina, 145-46
Los Angeles Police
Department ( LAPD ) , 28-29
Malcolm X, 26-27, 116, 191,
Meo, Yvonne Cole, 96
Mills, T. Lev, 136-37
Mills, P'lla, 67
Newton, Huey P., 238
Nixon, Richard M. , 73, 208
Noriega, Manuel, 73-74,
North, Oliver, 186, 224
Ortega, Daniel, 74
Outterbridge, John W. , 86,
90, 91, 96, 117, 118
119, 167, 170-72, 240
Paine, Billy, 144-45
Pajaud, William E., Jr.,
54, 55, 67-68, 135, 182-
Pajaud, William E., Sr.,
Parker, Charlie, 87, 92,
Pinkney, Oliver (uncle), 3
Pinochet, Augusto, 72, 75
Poitier, Sidney, III, 121
Purifoy, Noah, 60, 61-62,
69-70, 76, 116-17, 176,
179, 191, 207; Sir
Reagan, Ronald W., 13,
194, 199, 242, 247,
Ricks, Willy, 158, 214-15
Riddle, Anthony Thomas
(son), 13-14, 77, 139-
Riddle, Carmen Garrott
(wife), 5, 17, 25, 42,
188, 190, 191, 192, 199,
Riddle, C. Morton
(grandfather), 5, 6, 8,
Riddle, Deborah Lynn
Riddle, Diallo Amir (son),
Riddle, Dwight (uncle), 5
Edgar (uncle), 5-6
Flo (aunt), 6
Geraldine ( aunt ) ,
John Thomas, Jr.--
Bird and Diz, 87-
Employees Only, 72-75;
The Ghetto Merchant. 62;
86; Malcolm X. 77-
Anniversary. Busted. 80-
81; The Olympic Stand.
151-54; Pieces of Hand.
208-9; Pre-programmed .
45, 46; Street Trial. 51,
Riddle, John Thomas, Sr.
(father), 1, 2, 5, 9-10,
12, 13-17, 44, 94, 146,
Riddle, Pamela Ann
Riddle, Paul Anthony
( brother ) , 1
Riddle, Ralph (uncle), 6
Riddle, Shawn Denise
Riddle, Spring Robin
Robinson, Jackie, 6
Saar, Betye, 96, 180
Schulberg, Budd, 118
Seale, Bobby, 46, 123
Smith, David, 66
Superfly (film), 128-29
Tanner, Henry O. , 183-84,
Tatum, Earl, 44
Terry, Ollie, 94
Terry, Ruby, 94
Tolliver, William, 185
Torrijos, Omar, 73-74
University of California,
Santa Barbara, 249-50
Waddy, Ruth G. , 60, 61,
96, 114, 176, 181
Washington, Booker T.,
Washington, Timothy, 180
Wattle, David, 152
Watts riots, 154, 178-79
Summer Festival of
, 116, 117, 178, 182
George ( uncle )
Wheeler, Helen Louise
(mother), 1, 2, 10, 12,
16, 17, 20, 36, 44, 80,
White, Charles E. , 135,
White, Walter, 7-8
William Grant Still
Community Arts Center
( Los Angeles ) ,
Young Jr. , Andrew J. , 122